Great songs, terrible bands
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I subscribe to the theory that every band or artist, no matter how terrible, has at least one genuinely good song in them. Blink-182 has “I Miss You,” Peter Frampton has “Baby I Love Your Way,” Ice Cube has “It Was A Good Day.” What are your favorite good songs by terrible bands? —Rob, from Massachusetts
Listen to our great songs, terrible bands playlist on Rdio:
Oh, this one won’t be contentious at all, especially since both “good song” and “terrible band” are such profoundly clear, objective standards. Certainly there’s nothing remotely debatable about my feeling that Backstreet Boys is a terrible band, and my admission that I have “The Call” in iTunes, and have listened to it more times than I can admit without the inhibition-lowering assistance of alcohol. What can I say? I dig the weird little production touches in that song, from the Spanish-guitar strum at the beginning to the moaning a cappella vocal breakdown to the tight boy-band harmonies to the relentless, dramatic beat. It’s that drama that gets me—the song tells a spectacularly dumb story about a meathead who cheats on his girlfriend and lies about it on the phone, then melodramatically calls it “the call that changed my destiny,” presumably because she dumped his lyin’ ass. But the intensity of the song—and the supernatural-thriller-movie video—make it all seem like life and death. I’ve never run across another Backstreet Boys song I wanted to listen to twice, but I could listen to this one all day. It’s no crooning “I Want It That Way”-style love song, it’s a little peek at a world where every selfish, self-indulgent quickie on the side is the most exciting, frightening adventure that’s ever happened.
Listening to dozens of volumes of NOW That’s What I Call Music! volumes for the THEN That’s What They Called Music! series hipped me to a lot of irresistible songs by some supremely questionable artists, but if I had to choose one killer track from an artist I otherwise don’t particularly care for, it would be Jessica Simpson’s “A Public Affair.” It’s pure bubblegum, an extended riff on/blatant rip-off of early Madonna singles that took up valuable real estate inside my mind upon the first listen, and refused to leave. It’s a throwback to disco that celebrates a girl’s night out with breezy, featherweight charm and a maddeningly infectious, wildly derivative hook. I don’t care if Bret Ratner directed the video: I fucking love “A Public Affair” unironically, and I’m willing to shout my love from the mountaintops, or at least give it props in an AVQ&A. As this much-seen fan video (more than seven million hits!) attests, I’m not the only one who digs it.
Any of a zillion one-hit wonders would fill the bill nicely—somehow I doubt Tommy Tutone is worth exploring beyond the undeniable greatness of “Jenny (867-5309)”—so let’s raise the bar just a tad. Pearl Jam is one of the world’s biggest touring bands, and has genuinely earned it, blowing up its initial status as a cornerstone of corporate grunge and starting over on its own terms. Yet with one exception, its songs leave me cold, both on record and in an arena full of screaming fans. They’re big and hollow, feigning greatness without ever achieving it. (Comparing Pearl Jam to an oft-cited model, it’s as if the group woke up one day and decided it could be The Who, but never got around to writing the actual songs.) The exception, for me at least, is “World Wide Suicide,” a storming stop-start number that’s propulsive where the band’s other songs are merely bombastic, as its sparse verses give way to the churning assault of the chorus. The same goes for “Yellow,” the only Coldplay song I’ve heard that doesn’t instantly induce a narcoleptic trance.
First of all, Rob, you are deranged. Even though Ice Cube is currently in what ?uestlove called “his Cosby phase,” the man is behind some unimpeachable hip-hop classics that go beyond “It Was A Good Day.” And I’ll defend Blink-182 as well, though less vociferously. I’m so baffled that I can hardly concentrate enough to write a response, but here goes: I have friends who defend early Goo Goo Dolls, back when that band was basically a Replacements clone. I’ve had too-limited experience with that era to judge, but the band basically went into ballad mode following its breakout hit, “Name.” For the record, I don’t mind that song, but I actively like another GGD track, “Slide.” It’s undoubtedly cheeseball—“What you feel is what you are / and what you are is beautiful / oh May / do you wanna get married or run away?” Blech—but I really liked the chiming guitar, and the way the song builds at the beginning. Goo Goo Dolls isn’t a good band, but I think that song is pretty solid. (Rob, go Spotify AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, for the love of God.)
There are worse bands than early-’70s titan Grand Funk Railroad, but I can’t think of another one that was so commercially successful, and inspired such a level of hysterical devotion in its fans, with so little apparent reason. Most bad-but-popular bands have something that at least makes their appeal to others explicable: an attitude, a pretty face, a few hooks buried in the murk, something. Grand Funk prided itself on its uncharismatic ordinariness, which is one area where it delivered in spades, and cut by cut, its music was as flat and dry as a Cormac McCarthy landscape. Which makes it so strange that these goons managed to deliver the greatest self-celebratory rock anthem of all time, “We’re An American Band.” ”We Are the Road Crew,” “We Will Rock You,” “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees,” even They Might Be Giants’ “We’re The Replacements”—nothing else can touch it. If the members of Grand Funk Railroad sold their souls to the devil in exchange for those three minutes and 27 seconds of glory, it was worth it, though they probably just rented them to producer Todd Rundgren, a man you could trust if he told you to have the piano player put his stupid finger on that one stupid key and just keep punching it over and over and over—believe me, it’ll make the record.
I’m hesitant to qualify a bubblegum-pop act as “terrible,” since I have a lot of affection for bubblegum pop, and I think it’s far too easy to brush the stuff off as “terrible” just because it isn’t your thing. That said, within the oft-hated realm of millennial bubblegum pop, I’d argue that the girl group Dream lands squarely on one of the lowest rungs of respectability, simply by virtue of the fact that no one remembers Dream outside of its one hit single, “He Loves U Not.” And that’s because “He Loves U Not” is awesome, from the “pew-pew” laser effects right on down to the canned programmed drums. It’s sassy and singable and overproduced as all get-out, and that makes it a winner in my book. Bonus: The version from DJ Bedbugs’ Teenpop, Lock, And Drop Vol. 1 that mashes up “He Loves You Not” with Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands” somehow renders the song even more earwormy.
My selection is something of a double-whammy. Enrique Iglesias and Nicole Scherzinger are both much better at being pop stars than artists. But thanks in part to songwriter/producer Mark Taylor (the man behind Cher’s influential comeback record, Believe), the duo collaborated on what quickly became my favorite single of 2010, “Heartbeat.” The beautiful dance ballad was marketed much more aggressively overseas, right when I was on my honeymoon in Italy. It was everywhere, and I was obsessed. It’s the most soulful four minutes either Iglesias or Scherzinger has been a part of, and it gets it all right: the melodic piano trance, deep-house bass, and two emotional vocal performances that serve the song, not the individual. I thought “Heartbeat” would be huge in the U.S. when I returned, and my friends and I would rally around our new jam of the fall. Unfortunately, it didn’t get the same exposure on American radio, so it was comparatively DOA in the States, only underscoring the randomness of universal appeal. It also turned out the rest of Iglesias’ Euphoria record was absolutely terrible, but man, “Heartbeat” still kills me every time.
One of the prices of being an eternal optimist is that I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve been afraid to dismiss an almost-but-not-100-percent-awful band out of hand because, y’know, what if they somehow managed to pull together an entire album as good as the one song of theirs I like? But even when Color Me Badd released its 1991 debut album, C.M.B., I was already comfortable going out on a limb and declaring that the group would probably never again entertain me as much as it did with the song “All 4 Love,” and 21 years later, my theory still holds up. Now, I just want to clarify that I have answered the question precisely, so I’m not even going to begin to pretend that it’s a great song, but it’s so goddamned bouncy and insidiously catchy that it’s still on my iPod even now—a sentiment which definitely does not extend to “I Wanna Sex You Up” or “I Adore Mi Amor.” But “All 4 Love” ends up stuck in my head every time I give it a spin, so to my way of thinking, it must be good on some level, right? Right? Guys…?
About five years ago, I spent pretty much all of my time on an Internet discussion forum ostensibly devoted to predicting the Oscars, though the interests of the community had diverged from that, and headed into all manner of esoterica. It was a fun site, in its heyday, and I met many good friends there, including a few I continue to work with to this day. Anyway, there was one guy there who was kind of a titan of the film-and-music discussion areas. He would hand down his opinions from on high, and we’d all just sort of agree with them, regardless of our actual feelings, so alpha-male was he. (This is why I assumed, for years, that The New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema had a bad critical reputation.) But this young alpha male had a weakness, and that weakness was blonde girls with guitars and overproduced studio sounds. Which is why one day, he came to us, from his time communing with the music gods atop the mountain, and said, “Listen to this. I really think this is one of the best songs of the year. Listen to the way she says ‘obvious.’” And we didn’t really know what he was on about, but he kept going on and on, and, yeah, it was a pretty good song, if you listened to it enough times. All of which is to say that I still have Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces Of Me” on my iPod, and if you just listen to how she says “obvious,” you would totally understand.
Give Vixen a little credit. Before becoming a casualty of VH1’s Bands Reunited and a staple of bar-trivia nights, the members of the group strove toward a noble goal: reclaiming teased hair and caked makeup from their male counterparts in the L.A. glam-metal scene. Musically, of course, Vixen is terrifically shitlike; even its best album, 1988’s Vixen, begs for the onset of a grunge revolution—an anything revolution—three years before it would actually come. Maybe it’s the utter hopelessness of the band’s stiff, Aqua-Netted pop-metal that makes me somehow adore Vixen’s big hit, “Edge Of A Broken Heart.” Hemorrhaging the fading glory of the ’80s, “Edge” is a toothlessly fierce snarl in the face of some d-bag Romeo who fucked over the wrong lady in leather (and her badass, wannabe-Lita-Ford sisters). It totally rocks, too, probably because Richard Marx wrote it. I don’t know what my deal with Vixen is, really. Maybe I’ve always loved this song ’cause I only found out yesterday that it isn’t by Heart.
Talking about music on The A.V. Club is tricky business for me. I’m fine defending my taste in television, but I’m pretty sure I’d conveniently leave my iPod behind should I ever walk through the front doors of this site’s office. What others consider terrible might take up some serious hard-drive space on my end. But even I can’t stomach Katy Perry on a regular basis. Her initial single, “I Kissed A Girl” tried way too hard to be shocking, and subsequent singles had me reaching for the dial so fast, I nearly drove my car off the road. But dammit, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)” is a delicious piece of pop. It helped that I didn’t initially realize Perry sang it, which allowed hook after hook to sink in before I had the chance to raise my defenses. Some of the “look at me, I’m being naughty, hee hee” from “I Kissed A Girl” is still there. And there’s almost nothing to which this thirtysomething suburbanite can directly relate, lyrically. But there I am, every time, singing along against my better judgment, doing it allll aggggaaaaiiinnn each time it comes on the radio. Plus? It has a bizarrely long video, which makes me fondly remember the days when “Thriller” and “November Rain” dominated MTV’s airwaves.
I don’t hate The Moody Blues. To paraphrase Jack Donaghy, I have two ears, a heart, and grew up in a town where classic rock never went out of style, so I’ll give “Knights In White Satin” a listen when I come across it. (Though I could do without most of the rest of the band’s catalog, honestly, and I say that as someone who once reviewed a Moody Blues concert for a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper and got to witness the majesty of the band live.) That said, if you’re talking great songs, man, is “Go Now” a great song. An obscure soul cover from back when the group wanted to be a British R&B group in 1964, it features Denny Laine on lead vocals. Laine parted ways after the group couldn’t come up with a hit follow-up. The Moodies went psychedelic. Laine went on to be a part of Wings. But we’ll always have “Go Now.”
Anyone who was born after the Baby Boom generation has a moral obligation to hate Don Henley. He’s the living embodiment of the smug, self-satisfied smirk that spiteful Gen-Xers associate with those people. Also, almost everything he’s done as a solo artist is so painfully “serious” in that stuffy, furrowed-brow ’80s way that it’s impossible to take seriously. Notice I said almost everything: No matter how much Don Henley annoys me, you can’t deny “The Boys Of Summer.” Fortunately, I don’t have to put all the credit on Henley’s shoulders: The song was co-written by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, and if you know that, “The Boys Of Summer” starts to sound a lot like one of Petty’s mid-’80s synth-driven hits, particularly “You Got Lucky.” Campbell also supplies the guitar solo in the song’s outro, just as he does on so many great Petty songs. Hm, maybe “The Boys Of Summer” is really a Mike Campbell song that only features Don Henley. Yeah, I like that idea.
I am never shy about the bands I love, even if they’re the kind of band where liking them means risking being an outcast in our office, or even getting fired. But by far, the artist I take the most flak from friends for liking is Avril Lavigne (her last album excepted). But on her 2007 LP Girlfriend, the young Canadian reaches her apex with “Contagious,” a two-minute slice of adrenaline-fueled sparkling pop-punk awesomeness. The simplicity of a teen love song, the gigantic hooks, the easily hummable chorus; it’s all there, minus her usual faux-bratty sneer, which often pushes her songs into the unintentional-camp bubble. There’s more to say about how this song is Avril at her best and shows how much more fun she could be, but it’s best not to think about it too much.
Maybe it’s because I used to collect singles instead of albums as a kid, but I’ve always had an ear for a good pop song, one that’s well-written and got my attention, whether I wanted it to or not. Some songs like that—“Moves Like Jagger”—drive me up the wall. But others are catchy because they’re well-crafted. And, say what you will about Justin Timberlake—I like him much better as an SNL host than I do as a singer—but you have to admit that “SexyBack” is a pretty damn fine pop song. The lyrics are light but not stupid, and the verses give off a slinky vibe that for some reason I’ve never gotten tired of, almost six years after it became a big hit. It could be that the song doesn’t resort to gimmicky hooks or people whistling, but for some reason, that song gets me moving every time I listen to it, while pretty much anything coming from the pen of Adam Levine sets my teeth on edge. It’s a pretty fine line between infectious and grating, isn’t it?
For me, and taking a page from Tasha’s kickoff response, it’s gotta be “Pop” by ’N Sync. Born in ’82, I was weaned on New Kids On The Block, came of age to Boyz II Men, and was just old enough to despise Lou Pearlman’s bumper crop of follow-up boy bands. It was the worst of times for mainstream music, and be they bleach-tipped or corn-rowed, those little bastards were responsible for making the radio suck. And then, in the midst of meatheaded paeans to playerdom and sappy song-sized romance novels, there came this strangely self-aware single—one boy band’s plea for respect—and weirdly, it worked. At least, it worked on me. Justin Timberlake was always a standout in the group, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that he was responsible for the track’s lyrical sass—“Why you wanna try to classify the type of thing we do?”—as well as the concept of dubbing the group’s newly aggressive sound “dirty pop,” which felt a little bit like a knife slashing at his own group’s oeuvre, not to mention those of ’N Sync’s competitors. The beatbox solo was the icing on the cake, and a preview of the unexpected credibility that awaited JT in his solo career. Don’t you ever wonder why his music gets you high? This is the fizzy foundation of the Justin Timberlake we know and, yes, love today.