1. Gym Class Heroes featuring Adam Levine, “Stereo Hearts” (No. 5)
Steven: Gym Class Heroes is a D-grade hip-hop group from New York that has scraped by for years by associating with various members of Fall Out Boy and rounding out the bill at that annual cattle call of misspent youth otherwise known as the Warped Tour. Frontman Travie McCoy struck out as a solo artist in 2010 with the ridiculous Bruno Mars-assisted single “Billionaire,” but he’s back with the Heroes on the forthcoming album The Papercut Chronicles II. “Stereo Hearts” is the first single and, well, at least it’s a whole lot better than the gross materialism of “Billionaire.” Other than that, “Stereo Hearts” is pretty forgettable: The “my heart’s a stereo” hook sung by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine is annoying by the second go-around, and the backing track on the verses sounds like something Q-Tip would’ve gotten bored with after five minutes back in 1993. But if the success of this song keeps McCoy from releasing more solo material, it will have done its job.
Genevieve: I think you’re giving short shrift to the viability of both Gym Class Heroes and Travie McCoy by characterizing them as “scraping by,” Steven. “Cupid’s Chokehold”—a.k.a. “that song with Patrick Stump that bites Supertramp”—was a huge, inescapable hit in 2006, and “Billionaire” (which, not that incidentally, bites Sublime) was just as big, if not bigger, on pop radio. So it’s no surprise to see Gym Class Heroes back near the top of the Hot 100, nor is it a surprise to see them doing it with the aid of a sweetly sung, vaguely soul-tinged hook by another familiar face from the Hot 100. And considering this is produced by Benny Blanco—who helped produce nearly 20 top-10 singles since 2008, including five from your girl Ke$ha, Steven—its success is not surprising, nor is its potent earworminess. I certainly don’t love “Stereo Hearts,” especially the tortured “my love is a boombox” metaphor and McCoy’s mush-mouthed rapping, but I like it a little better than you, Steven, if only for how expertly it baits radio programmers with that oh-so-trendy wobbly bass and soaring chorus.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Genevieve: “Young, Wild & Free” is from the soundtrack to Mac And Devin Go To High School, an upcoming film that is apparently real, sort of, and stars Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa. The fact that this movie is nowhere to be found on IMDb or pretty much any website that isn’t Wiz Khalifa-affiliated suggests it is less a movie than a feature-length lark, and if that’s the case, “Young, Wild & Free” is a perfect leadoff single. A simple, silly paean to smokin’ weed and hangin’ with your bros, it’s a perfectly serviceable, borderline-novelty feel-good jam, grounded by a nifty little piano hook from Bruno Mars at his least annoying. There’s nothing about this song asking us to take it seriously, which makes it easy to like… though I certainly don’t need to see this approach stretched out to feature-film length.
Steven: The only thing that makes me sad about “Young, Wild & Free” is that Bruno Mars is singing the hook instead of the late, great Nate Dogg. I knew Nate Dogg; my brain got very cloudy in the backseat of numerous cars back in high school listening to Nate Dogg on Snoop’s weed-smoking classic Doggystyle; and Bruno Mars is no Nate Dogg. Ol’ Nate was the Mel Torme of THC back then. Other than that, I agree with you: This is a suitably carefree ode to the demon weed, though it’s not appreciably different from the usual fare for Wiz or Snoop, both of whom specialize in music with a high ganja content.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B
3. Britney Spears, “I Wanna Go” (No. 37)
Genevieve: I am an unabashed Britney Spears apologist (Femme Fatale remains one of my favorite albums of the year), so I will spare you all the sophomore-year thesis on how Britney is much more enjoyable when viewed as a pop construct than as an artist or person and just say: Listen to that whistle! “I Wanna Go” is one of the most maddeningly catchy tracks off Femme Fatale, bubbly and hyper-polished in that signature Max Martin way, with a super-heavy bass line to keep the damn thing from floating away. A lot of critics bemoan how latter-day Britney has become a tragic, over-medicated symbol of the pop-music grind who can’t even dance anymore, but “I Wanna Go” belies such notions—check out the supremely silly music video—even if the sense of frivolity and fun is completely fabricated for the audience’s sake. This is the best kind of candy, and I’ll happily eat it up.
Steven: I know you and Britney have a special thing going on, so I’ll tread lightly here. I appreciate that B. appears to finally have a sense of humor about herself and her persona; earlier in her career, there was that weird duality between her sexpot image and the good-Christian front she put on in her interviews. It made her seem like either the least self-aware person on the planet, or a little sociopathic. But I’d argue that Britney is actually less mechanical and more human now than she’s ever been, which is evidenced in the playful tone of “I Wanna Go.” That said, I enjoy the tremendously silly video more than the song—did you catch the Crossroads reference?—which (yes) is catchy but in an irritating, ringtone-pop sort of way.
Genevieve’s grade: A
Steven’s grade: B-
4. Coldplay, “Paradise” (No. 38)
Steven: I’ve defended Coldplay before in this column, and I’m here to do it again: “Paradise” is another strong single from the new, surprisingly satisfying Mylo Xyloto, topping even the supremely solid “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” from this summer. Yeah, yeah, I know the verses are a little soggy in places, and I won’t even bother paying attention to whatever Chris Martin is sensitively ruminating about in the lyrics. Coldplay lives and dies by bear-hugging choruses, and the “whoa-oh-ohs” on “Paradise” speak directly to the boyhood U2 fan in me. It’s a little too formulaic perhaps, but this song is designed for group sing-alongs among thousands of strangers in large arenas, and on those terms it’s a success. “Paradise” might have the subtlety of a Lifetime movie score, but it pulls at the heartstrings just as effectively.
Genevieve: Steven, I think it’s become clear that we both have our individual pop-music peccadilloes here on TWP—Britney Spears for me, Coldplay and Ke$ha for you—that the other will never fully understand or embrace. I totally respect Coldplay’s right to exist, but I just can’t get excited about most of its songs, which I generally just register as “a Coldplay song” and then kind of check out. So the fact that “Paradise” actually manages to grab me out of the gate with that ridiculously huge, dance-y beat coming out of the pretty introductory strings is promising. But “Paradise” soon settles into the Coldplay formula of piano plus Chris Martin’s sappy lyrics—including an unfortunate callback to the eye-rolling title of “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”—multiplied by a soaring chorus. The song builds to a nice crescendo that I really dig, and that combined with the interesting beat is enough to make this a winner, but it’s still not enough to convince me I need to listen to more Coldplay.
Steven’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: B+
5. B.o.B. featuring Lil Wayne, “Strange Clouds” (No. 40)
Genevieve: And here we have the dark, booming yang to the bright, peppy yin of “Young, Wild & Free.” That huge Dr. Luke bass line is immediately arresting, and B.o.B.’s aggressive flow might be surprising to those unfamiliar with his mix-tapes who only know him as that guy who did “Airplanes.” But the sinister, alien quality of the deep, dubby production is far better served by the effortlessly weird Lil Wayne, a notoriously spotty guest-verse contributor who brings the good shit to this party, right down to the maniacal laughter that results from a night spent amidst “strange clouds.” As with “Young, Wild & Free,” there’s not much here in the way of innovation, either musically or lyrically, but as a grimier, blacklight-lit take on the feel-good pot anthem (with perhaps a bit of cough syrup thrown in the mix), it works.
Steven: So, is every single person on the planet smoking pot now? How is Kottonmouth Kings not the Black Eyed Peas at this point? It’s strange how B.o.B. gets more aggressive when he’s talking about marijuana on “Strange Days,” which as you mentioned is a lot darker than the happy-go-lucky pop hits that made his name. Didn’t he and that other pothead Bruno Mars team up just last year for the sickeningly sweet “Nothin’ On You”? “Strange Clouds” is a decent track, I guess, with a reliably loopy cameo from the perpetually stoned Lil Wayne. But I feel like scheduling an intervention.
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: B-
6. The Fray, “Heartbeat” (No. 43)
Steven: The Fray’s breakout 2006 hit “Over My Head (Cable Car)” sounded like warmed-over Matchbox Twenty, and the rest of the Denver-based pop-rock band’s output has followed suit. On “Heartbeat”—the first single from Scars And Stories, which is due out next year—The Fray attempts a more muscular alt-rock sound. Scars was produced by Brendan O’Brien, whose work with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots in the mid-’90s is clearly the model for the full-bodied yet limber “Heartbeat.” O’Brien’s ability to craft recordings that sound great on the radio serves The Fray well, though the songwriting is still heavily indebted to the Rob Thomas school of mediocre mid-tempo pop-rockin’.
Genevieve: While I agree that the more robust, comparatively rocking sound of “Heartbeat” is a welcome change from the wimpiness of the damn-near-inescapable “How To Save A Life,” the pop-rock-by-numbers arrangement and trite, vague lyrics make this feel like a forgettable contribution to the soundtrack of Valentine’s Day 2 or something. If nothing else, this more guitar-driven direction helps broaden the gap between The Fray and frequent point of piano-rock comparison Coldplay (who’ve assisted in that regard by moving in a more synth-driven direction), though it’s just as predictable and much more bland.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Genevieve: If there’s anything that can salvage a flimsy chorus sung by one of the blandest R&B vocalists working, it’s a well-executed Curtis Mayfield sample. The persistent high-hat and brassy interludes of “Give Me Your Love” provide a nice counterpoint to Jerimih’s drippy vocals, and like magic—or a charmingly persistent lothario—the hook gets under your skin, and the rest of “That Way” soon follows suit. Wale’s airport-hopping rhymes are a capable, if not especially inspired take on the globe-trotting, “girls, girls, girls” hip-hop motif, but his casual, confident delivery turns what could be obnoxious posturing into charming candor. Somewhat surprisingly, Rick Ross’ contribution is the bum note here, barreling over the slow jam’s smooth, slinky charm with a brash, brand-dropping verse that undoes a lot (but not all) of the goodwill Mr. Mayfield brings to the track.
Steven: Love Curtis Mayfield, but even the awesome “Give Me Your Love” can’t withstand Jeremih’s torturously callow crooning on the hook or the draggy beats or Wale’s uninspired rhymes on the verses. Even slow jams have to jam at least a little bit, but the meager amount of momentum this song musters is continually foiled by Jeremih’s baby-soft cooing in the chorus. I actually think Rick Ross’ verse in the song’s back half salvages things a bit; it didn’t blow me away or anything, but at least Rozay brings some personality to these otherwise drab proceedings. It’s like they say on Top Chef—you’ve got to respect the protein. “That Way” turns Curtis Mayfield’s musical mastery into mush.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C-
8. Eric Church, “Drink In My Hand” (No. 68)
Genevieve: Hey Steven, did you know that male country stars enjoy drinking? In case our recent boozy romp through the country-music chart wasn’t enough to convince you, here’s some more fodder from Eric Church. Don’t get me wrong: “Drink In My Hand” is a perfectly fun, safely rowdy party song, and Church has a slight, charming smirk in his voice (and, I can only presume, twinkle in his eye) that makes this more likable than bland beach-party fare like Jason Niemann’s “One More Drinkin’ Song.” (Though it isn’t willfully, gleefully stupid enough to approach the savant-like genius of “Red Solo Cup,” either.) But this is Drinking Songs 101, from the heard-it-a-million times “fill it up I’ll throw it down” line right on down to the “I’m a simple man” patronizing. The theme of this month’s TWP seems to be songs that succeed by not asking us to take them seriously, and “Drink In My Hand” slots into that category nicely, though perhaps a bit too predictably.
Steven: I’m a fan of Eric Church’s 2011 album Chief—particularly the affecting growin’ up song “Springsteen”—and while “Drink In My Hand” is one of the less distinctive cuts, it does have an early-’80s John Cougar Mellencamp vibe that I appreciate. While “Drink In My Hand” conforms to the country drinking song template, the sound of it is only barely country; if Church emerged 25 years ago, he’d be a grittier, drunker version of Bryan Adams. “Drink In My Hand” might be predictable craftsmanship, but it’s still craftsmanship.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B
9. Nickelback, “When We Stand Together” (No. 70)
Steven: “When We Stand Together” opens with the drumbeat from Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll” and a guitar lick that sounds like a failed (but courageous) attempt to play house music. Then Chad Kroeger opens his mouth, and those sandpaper-on-gonads vocals tell you immediately that this is a goddamn Nickelback song. Credit where credit is due, though: “When We Stand Together” doesn’t sound much like a typical Nickelback song. The chorus is loud and stomping, but the somewhat danceable groove and “soft” acoustic sound is downright experimental for these stubbornly sludgy Canadians. “Experimental” shouldn’t be taken to be synonymous with “good” in this case, but Nickelback is trying to recover the artiste inside the Neanderthal on “When We Stand Together.” Also, dig the philosophical lyrics, GK. They’ll make you think, man.
Genevieve: This might be my favorite Nickelback song, which, granted, is pretty much like saying bacterial vaginosis is your favorite STI. But we’ve already established I’m a sucker for a catchy drum line, and a well-executed tom can go a long way toward redeeming a mediocre song in my mind (See also: Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”.) The sticking point is, as you say, the vocals. A less hunger-dunger-dang vocalist might be able to render this a catchy, if pandering, little bit of radio-bait, but every mouth-turd that plops out of Kroeger’s mouth is laced with self-seriousness, turning an ostensibly uplifting song into a dirge. Seriously, has anyone ever made the words “Hey yeah yeah yeah yeah” sound more tortured?
Steven’s grade: C
Genvieve’s grade: C-
10. Evanescence, “Lost In Paradise” (No. 99)
Steven: Evanescence is one of those terrible Bush-era modern-rock bands that I assumed simply disappeared when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Instead, this dreary goth-metal outfit topped the albums chart this month with its first album in five years, The Open Door. The band’s singer, Amy Lee, is like a harder-rocking Tori Amos, which means her fans take her piano-powered caterwauling too seriously and everybody else doesn’t take her seriously enough. “Lost In Paradise” to my ears is pure melodramatic cheese; if I wanted to be cute, I’d call it “Meat Loaf for kids who wear trench coats and carry around Magic cards.” But this is one of the best-selling rock bands in the country right now, so what do I know?
Genevieve: You’d think a five-year hiatus and the decline of post-grunge would have dimmed Evanescence’s star, but as the success of Christina Perri and Florence + The Machine prove, there’s always an audience for melodramatic lady singers backed by piano and harp. Now, I enjoy Florence Welch’s theater-kid antics, mainly because her music shamelessly piles on the embellishment with a Rococo-like abandon that I find endearing; Evanescence, on the other hand, takes a tortured goth-lite approach that becomes harder to enjoy the further you get from the scars of puberty. The first two minutes of this song is pure, unabashed wallowing that somehow becomes even more plodding once the electric guitar kicks in. Lee has a strong, emotive voice that I’m sure is very affecting if you’re picking up what she’s laying down, lyrically speaking, but I’m too far past the point of “denying this feeling of hopelessness” to find “Lost In Paradise” anything but mind-numbingly boring.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: D+