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This Was Pop discovers the softer side of the rock-songs chart

A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden explore the Billboard charts every month in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. Today, they take a look at the rock songs chart for November 3, 2012.

Fun, “Some Nights” (No. 1)

Steven: Like the majority of Fun’s breakout sophomore album Some Nights, the title track was co-written by Jeff Bhasker, the much in-demand songwriter-musician-producer who also pitched in on Taylor Swift’s Red and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, among many other recent pop smashes. Bhasker’s influence on Fun is critical to the group’s slick and successful melding of classic-rock melodies and hip-hop sensibility, of which “Some Nights” is a winning example. While I found “We Are Young” to be little more than an enormously catchy chorus and not much else, “Some Nights” is an expertly constructed track, with harmony vocals beamed in from a late-’70s Styx record soaring over a propulsive rhythm track that’s reminiscent of West’s “Power.” 

Genevieve’s grade: Yeah, maybe it’s the oversaturation of “We Are Young” talking, but I’d take 10 listens of “Some Nights” over another spin of Fun’s previous single. Like the last one, this song rides on its sing-along chorus (which is somewhat reminiscent of Simon And Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” of all things), but those big fucking drums are the real star. It’s almost enough to obscure the fact that, like “We Are Young,” the lyrics here a pretty damn depressing—and that spoken breakdown toward the end is just dire—proving that Fun has cornered the market on pop miserabelia disguised as triumphant anthems. That band name is looking more ironic by the single. 
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Ed Sheeran, “The A Team” (No. 7)

Steven: Speaking of Red, ascendant British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran recently got a career boost when Swift invited him to co-write and sing on the Red track, “Everything Has Changed.” (He’ll also be the opening act on her upcoming tour, another huge coup.) Appearing on one of 2012’s biggest pop albums should only add to the momentum created by “The A Team,” his first stateside hit single. “The A Team” is a pleasant if unexceptional folk ditty that positions Sheeran as the happy medium between Coldplay and James Blunt—and, yes, Coldplay is the “edgy” part of that scenario. Sheeran’s steady strum is what motors “The A Team,” which thankfully never blows up into the grandiose ballad it threatens to become in the song’s back half. It’s nicely understated, but there’s little in the way of payoff. Sheeran is an unassuming singer-songwriter, and “The A Team” is an unassuming little song, and if that’s enough to make you care, they’re both totally okay.

Genevieve: Unassuming, unexceptional, understated. Those are some pretty telling adjectives you’re using, Steven. “The A Team” isn’t bad—in fact, it’s pretty good by the standards of coffeehouse singer-songwriter fare—but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it became a hit radio single, a rock radio single at that, outside of the Swift connection. Or possibly the fact that Billboard recently changed its metrics to reflect streaming and digital-download numbers, which has upended the charts somewhat, and presumably accounts for the presence of some of the artists on this list, like Sheeran. Sheeran is a good lyricist, and his detailed observations about a drug-addicted prostitute are nicely realized, but it’s pretty morose fare, and not especially grabbing. (I had to force myself to sit and really listen to the lyrics, because my attention kept wandering to other things when I had it just playing in the background.) You say you’re thankful the song stays low key and never “blows up,” but I found myself wishing for some sort of release that never came. “The A Team” is nice, but so even-keeled it threatens to glide by without making any impact at all.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B-

Muse, “Madness” (No. 8)

Genevieve: “Madness” is certainly not what’s expected of a band known for prog-rock virtuosity and arena-rock bombast, nor is it really what’s expected of modern-rock radio. (Though as these rock-chart sojourns have shown us, that definition is harder to pin down by the day.) Falling in the intersection of the Venn diagram of Queen, Depeche Mode, and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” with a strong undercurrent of wub-wub to appease modern brostep trends, it’s slinky, sensual, and relatively restrained, none of which are adjectives commonly associated with Muse. The first half of the song is arresting, with its “ma-ma-ma-ma” vocalizations and spacey synths, but “Madness” really shows its strength post-midpoint guitar solo, when things get decidedly Muse-ier with some very pretty harmonies and evocative caterwauling from Matthew Bellamy. 

Steven: Muse has been dabbling in dance music and R&B for a while now, but never as much as on its latest album, The 2nd Law. “Madness” is hands down Muse’s most successful experiment in this arena, and it’s probably the record’s best track overall. As you mention, “Madness” actually builds from a relatively restrained opening to a dramatic, U2-like climax, which shows that Muse is capable of dynamics that don’t start at 11 and scream forward from there. For all the guff that Muse takes from critics, it truly is one of the only major rock groups that is engaging with non-rock sounds in a way that seems more or less natural. I normally avoid making predictions, but the successful intersection of dubstep, pop, and rock on “Madness” is going to influence a lot of rock radio hits to come. (The ones that don’t sound like Mumford And Sons, anyway.)
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: A-

Mumford And Sons, “Babel” (No. 9)

Genevieve: Steven, a couple months ago you finally started to come around on Mumford And Sons with the leadoff single from Babel, so I’m very curious where you stand on the title track. I’ve been more Mumford-neutral-leaning-positive since the British banjo-toters broke through in 2010, but I think I’m starting to get a little weary of hearing the same chord progressions on nearly every song, no matter how energetic they may be. What “Babel” has going for it is Marcus Mumford’s vocal performance, which has a gravelly, raw edge to it that injects a little personality into a song that otherwise doesn’t do much to distinguish itself musically from your average Irish-pub-band performance. (Not that that doesn’t have its own appeal, for some.) For better or worse, Mumford And Sons have a very defined sound, but there’s plenty of wiggle room within that sound that this song just doesn’t take advantage of.

Steven: As a singles band, it’s pretty hard to deny Mumford And Sons. In short, three-minute bursts, this is scrappy, uplifting stuff designed for sing-alongs and good cries on the ride home from work. If “Babel” is the first Mumford song you’ve ever heard, it probably sounds like a rousing song by a quirky band. For the rest of us, however, the point has already been reiterated many times: Mumford songs begin quietly with some light guitar strumming and banjo picking, they rise slowly on Marcus Mumford’s impassioned vocal, and then finish with a triumphant chorus of voices. This formula ain’t going away anytime soon: Out of 25 songs on Billboard’s rock songs chart, 11 are by Mumford And Sons. Next year they will be by Mumford knockoffs. The zombie-folk apocalypse is upon us.
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Steven’s grade: B-

Passion Pit, “Take A Walk” (No. 10)

“Take A Walk” is an emotionally confusing song, setting a narrative comparing two men in the middle of two economic depressions to an aggressively jaunty, stomping track that links them through the repetitive chorus. Because they both take a walk, you see? It’s an immediately striking track that gets less impressive and more grating the more you dissect it, which is unfortunate, because the initial rush of it is quite something. (And, as someone with the tendency to walk in time to whatever music I’m listening to, it drives me crazy that the tempo is set to “frantic clomping.”) I still like it more than I dislike it, but only of I engage with it on a very surface level—like, say, in a Taco Bell commercial.

Steven: Hm, the only thing that’s “immediately striking” to me about Passion Pit is how popular it is. I was shocked when Passion Pit was recently booked on Saturday Night Live on the heels of announcing a headlining gig at Madison Square Garden. I found the band’s breakout 2009 album Manners to be so thoroughly mediocre that I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to check out the follow-up, Gossamer. Based on “Take A Walk,” it appears Passion Pit is still trafficking in annoyingly catchy indie synth-pop utterly lacking in soul or substance. I probably dislike it more than I like it, but honestly this group inspires bored indifference more than anything else. 
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C

Three Days Grace, “Chalk Outline” (No. 15)

Steven: Canadian rock band Three Days Grace is one of those groups that seem to exist only in the darkest corners of modern-rock radio. You never hear about Three Days Grace in the media, but it stubbornly continues to sell records: This year the band released Transit Of Venus, its fourth record since 2003 and the third Three Days Grace album to debut in the Billboard top 10. Take that, Animal Collective! On “Chalk Outline,” Three Days Grace tiptoe around dubstep without ever really embracing it; the dunderhead riff at the center of “Chalk Outline” is too sludgy to pass for dance music, which speaks to the band’s conservatism in the face of rock radio turning into a sea of Mumford knockoffs. Incredibly, it’s Three Days Grace that has been tasked with preserving the Mouse Rat school of radio rock. I hope they forgive me if I don’t wish them luck.

Genevieve: I never had a whole lot of affection for the sort of music Three Days Grace is stubbornly clinging to, so I’m not particularly bothered by “Chalk Outline,” which sounds like it was composed specifically to appear on as many shitty horror-movie soundtracks as possible. The heavy-handed lyrical metaphor borders on parody, but Adam Gontier delivers it with all the conviction and belligerence attendant to his chosen genre, and the crunchy guitars unsurprisingly mesh well with the brostep undertones (lending credibility to your assertion that dubstep is the nu-metal of this generation, Steven). This can be filed squarely under “not for me”—and, I suspect, not for most of our readers—but it knows what it’s doing and it does it well enough.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C-

Willy Moon, “Yeah Yeah” (No. 19)

Steven: New Zealand singer, musician, and producer Willy Moon broke out in America thanks to “Yeah Yeah” being featured in an iPod commercial—and while I know you never watch ads, GK, this is still a big way that songs get turned into hits these days. But even more than Alex Clare’s “Too Close,” another big beneficiary of recent computer-ad exposure, “Yeah Yeah” is a super shticky commercial jingle that illustrates just how far from rock music the rock charts have gotten. Then again, the local modern-rock station in my town seems to either be playing the Chili Peppers or Fat Boy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank” whenever I switch over. And the high-energy “Yeah Yeah” reminds me a lot of “The Rockafeller Skank.” Take that comparison however you’d like, Willy Moon.

Genevieve: iPod ads are on another level as far as launching songs, and to a lesser extent artists, into the wider public consciousness. But for every Black Eyed Peas, there are a handful of bands like The Fratellis, Jet, or even The Ting Tings, who will forever be associated first and foremost with silhouettes dancing manically in front of brightly colored construction paper. That can be unfortunate—for both the band and fans of that band who predate the commercial—but there are some songs that seem to exist solely for the purpose of soundtracking these ads, and “Yeah Yeah” is one such song. Its best qualities—that big horn blast and the na-na-nas—can be reduced to a 30-second clip that’s catchy enough to inspire a Google search for “iPod commercial na na na song.” Whether people Google beyond that to find out anything more about Willy Moon is another question entirely. I know I didn’t. Sorry, Willy.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevive’s grade: C

The Lumineers, “Stubborn Love” (No. 23)

Genevieve: Seriously, what is up with the rock charts this month? Last time we ventured here, we found a bunch of lunkheaded post-grunge bullshit; this month’s songs are downright cuddly by comparison. While The Lumineers’ last single, “Ho Hey,” had an interesting, almost jittery energy to it, “Stubborn Love” is pretty darn sleepy, with some pretty darn trite lyrics to boot. (“It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all / The opposite of love is indifference.” Pretty sure I saw that on a floral-bordered magnet on my aunt’s refrigerator.) All that said, the chant-along chorus is moving in the way these kinds of choruses always are, and the final build is kind of undeniable. But it all feels a little false, like a song going through the motions.

Steven: The Lumineers are practically Mumford’s unnamed but very successful sons at this point. You’re right that The Lumineers are sleepier than Mumford, especially on the alt-country-ish “Stubborn Love.” But it’s still cut from the same twee, “whoa-oh-oh” cloth. When judged in a vacuum, “Stubborn Love” is a decent-enough song, as long as you ignore the lyrics, which make Marcus Mumford sound like Berlin-era Lou Reed. I’m just feeling serious fatigue with the “hey!” school of radio-friendly indie-folk. I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for Seether, but here we are. 
Genevieve’s grade: C+
Steven’s grade: C