It's December, and 'tis the season for year-end lists, best-of playlists, and of course, DJ Earworm's annual United State of Pop mash-up. If you want a quick answer to "what it all meant," it's hard to do better than Earworm's five-minute time capsules of the pop sphere. Last year, I talked to the San Francisco-based DJ (a.k.a. Jordan Roseman) about the process of curating and melding 12 months of the best (and worst) of mainstream music, and how 2012 was overall more melodic and optimistic than the apocalypse pop of 2010 and 2011. But this year, the clouds rolled back in: "It's a little darker-themed, I think," he told Billboard.
You know the saying that when somebody shows you who they are, believe them? Maybe an artist's singles really do predict what the album will be like. Miley Cyrus's first two singles were all over the place, and Bangerz followed suit. Katy Perry's Prism A-sides were safe and dark, respectively, and the album oscillates between uplifting and introspective. Lady Gaga released a bunch of scattershot singles that made it hard to imagine how her album would add up, and now we have Artpop to connect the dots. As Gaga's third official album, it's neither as lightheartedly catchy as The Fame nor as pompously preachy as Born This Way. On Artpop, Gaga doubles down on what made her a star in the first place: personality, theatrics, and big hooks you can hang weird hats on.
As always, Gaga uses a Broadway vibrato you will either love or find repulsive, probably depending on how you feel about Liza Minnelli. It's not always as exaggerated as it is on "Applause," but it's definitely present throughout. Gaga goes more nasal and guttural on this album than ever before, and it's a matter of personal taste. I liked it. She leans into the imperfections in her voice — a rarity for a pop star of her stature, but that's why pop culture's in art in her. Gaga's insistence that Artpop is about something doesn't even grate on me, because of course it's about something. We all agree that albums can be works of art, right? So why does pop music often get shunted aside, as if it doesn't belong on the same plane as rock and rap and electronic music? Genreism is a vestige of the past.
Pure Heroine, the debut album released today by New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, opens with "Tennis Court," a track previously released as a single earlier this summer. The song, a murkily winsome, ever-so-slightly chopped ballad, ruminates rather transparently on Ella Yelich-O'Connor's rise to fame over the past year. "Pretty soon I'll be getting on my first plane," O'Connor sings, a reference to her first trip to do press in the States, where her single "Royals" was quickly making its way up our charts. It could easily have been a wistful document of a one-hit wonder getting a taste of the big time before returning to her hometown with her tail between her legs, but if you've seen any of the terrifyingly self-assured interviews she's given in the past few months, you know she released that song with the full confidence of a future superstar. And that confidence was warranted: It just so happens that Pure Heroine, as its title cheekily implies, is wall-to-wall pop pleasure and very possibly the best album of the year, validating for those of us who have been banking on her success, and incredibly inviting for those who are just hearing of her for the first time.
I am not Miley Cyrus's manager — the best evidence of that is her insanely successful campaign to be the most talked-about pop musician by a mile for the last three months. But if I were her manager — IF! — I might be feeling a little protective right now. Her latest checkpoint on her journey of total cultural dominance was the news today that "Wrecking Ball," the second single off of her upcoming album Bangerz, has reached the no. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot 100. You may recall that earlier this year the algorithm for the Hot 100 changed to include YouTube traffic in its calculation of America's Most Popular Song (this was how Baauer stayed at the no. 1 spot for five weeks). You may also recall that the video for "Wrecking Ball" is very naked, very silly, and has spawned thousands of parody clips. So, yeah, do the math.
The thing is, I'd bet money that "Wrecking Ball" would have reached no. 1 with color bars for a video because it's a big, earwormy ballad and sounds like a no. 1 song. But it probably would have taken a lot longer than the three and a half weeks it has been since the song's release.
We hear you, dear listeners. And while it may seem a little excessive to devote not one, not two, but three podcasts to our embattled twerkaholic Miley Cyrus this week, we understand the importance of giving the people what you want. So we spent no less than 40 minutes this week dissecting the VMA performance controversy from every angle humanly possible. Should Miley be ashamed of herself? Is Miley an oppressor? Is Miley a racist? Is Miley a feminist? Is this "the worst it can get"? Why are we even talking about this so much? Are we even qualified to talk about this? (We mention this excellent essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom, someone who definitely is.)
After that we veer into the final days of the Song of the Millennium Bracket, pour a little out for the early defeat of Britney Spears's "Toxic," and (hotly!) debate whether or not Modest Mouse should have been included in the top 64.
So now we know why Miley Cyrus was so confident that her "We Can't Stop" ratchet makeover wouldn't destroy the pop-rock-country foundation that the House of Hannah Montana was built on. She had a second single, "Wrecking Ball," up her sleeve all along, designed to appeal to the Miley fans who loved her 2009 inspirational ballad "The Climb" and have no idea whatsoever what #turnt means. Miley herself already seems to be getting bored with her most recent phase; her super-short cropped pixie has grown out slightly and she's been wearing it in Björkish pigtail buns, and she more or less officiated at her own twerking funeral during the VMAs.
As summer winds down and school supplies start to line store shelves that once held water guns, it's only natural to start looking toward fall. Autumn contains football, prestige films, and this year it's also the season of huge pop albums. While big pop stars might traditionally lean toward summer hits, there's nothing like a good fall-into-winter jam. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus all have albums due out in the same quarter. Perry's Prism is set to debut in October and Lady Gaga's ARTPOP in November. Miley Cyrus's album Bangerz doesn't have an official release date, but considering first single "We Can't Stop" is finally topping international charts, it could be expected that the album will drop soonish.
Pop album rollouts are meant to be lavish, masterfully engineered spectacles, but so far there have been a few bumps in the road for all three stars. Cyrus dealt with criticism over the bathroom bumps of coke and molly-fueled dancing she not-so-slyly alludes to on "We Can't Stop." Her less-than-slick response was an initial denial followed by a later retraction. Despite or because of her attention-hungry antics, "We Can't Stop" had a long, slow burn, overcoming its initially tepid reviews and twerk fatigue to become a smash.
I've been trying to figure out if there's anything important to say about "I Love It" for about a month now, other than the interesting footnote that Lena Dunham now apparently has influence over mainstream radio play (I heard "I Love It" on KIIS-FM for the first time the day after "Bad Friend" aired). I suppose it's interesting that Icona Pop graduated from the music blogs to the Billboard charts in a matter of months, but that doesn't excite me the way most mainstream-crashing songs do, because whenever I hear this song I have the overwhelming sense that it's trying to sell me something I can't exactly put my finger on. It's already been used in advertisements for smartphones and mail-order shoes, but there's no reason to stop there — it also sounds like energy drinks, casual dining chains, and new-wave tampons. It sounds weirdly out of date, like something that should have come out in the mid-to-early aughts when Le Tigre was still making kids with asymmetrical haircuts bomp around. If it makes Icona Pop and Charli XCX into global household names, then good for them, but I'd rather listen to "Thrift Shop" for the 358th time than continue to get shouted at by these hiply accented ladies.
The most frequently asked questions in the wake of the “Accidental Racist” debacle were “How?” “Who?” and “Why?” How could this happen? Who thought it was a good idea? Why didn’t someone push a bookshelf on top of this person until Brad Paisley and LL Cool J were persuaded in the studio parking lot to return home to their respective mansions? If I can offer a marginal defense of “Accidental Racist,” it’s not as if pairing a pop-country singer with a past-his-prime rapper automatically leads to disaster. It is possible for this equation to also produce an outcome that’s about as innocuous as the Hot 100 can get in 2013.
Over the past year, Demi Lovato has slowly moved into the often-thankless role of the gimmick-free vocal-centric pop star, a significantly less crowded market than it was, say, 10 years ago. (Its reigning queen is now Taylor Swift, against whom public opinion has been shifting at the same time Lovato has been quietly stepping up her game.) I still stand by "Give Your Heart a Break" as a solid piece of songwriting, precisely because it feels old-fashioned next to the more sexed-up kind of dance jams that Rihanna and Nicki Minaj have been cranking out. (I love the sexed-up dance jams, too, but you gotta keep it fresh.) "Heart Attack" continues Lovato's track record of irony-free, emotionally sharp pop songs that stick in your head for weeks at a time. It's her best single to date.
On March 20 at 5:51 p.m. PDT, @MileyCyrus tweeted a Facebook video of a figure in a baggy unicorn onesie dancing very professionally to J. Dash's booty-friendly track "Wop." It's a mesmerizing, grainy, black-and-white clip, shot in one take, and at the very end, the figure makes a face and walks out of the frame, right after removing her hood and revealing herself to in fact be Miley Ray Cyrus herself.
Miley Cyrus is an amazing dancer. I had no idea.
This clip is unnecessarily artsy, and somehow, despite the heavy twerking on display, completely avoids being conventionally sexy, which is intriguing.
I am no longer worried about Miley Cyrus (for the time being).
Well, I'm glad this appears to be out of our systems now. It wasn't going to be very long before the name "Swedish House Mafia" stopped being funny, and if we as a society ever normalize a name like "Swedish House Mafia," then there might be no saving us. I liked SHM better when they were making awesomely silly steampunk Absolut ads; this attempt at a heart-tugger is completely flat and boring by comparison. I'm not sure who this John Martin fellow is ("John Martin is a Swedish singer-songwriter, best known for his collaborations with the Swedish House Mafia." Thanks, Wikipedia), but for some reason I always imagine Jax from Vanderpump Rules is singing this, preferably while wearing a pristine off-white fisherman sweater. That five-step jump between notes in the chorus sounds like it is actually physically hurting him; I can hear the wince, and pretty soon I'm mirroring it myself.
Hande Yener is a Turkish pop diva who has sold 17 million albums in her 13-year career. Yener started out as a backup singer for "Queen of Turkish Pop" Sezen Aksu, which allowed her to eventually release a solo project. Yener is known for her fusion of Turkish musical traditions with modern Euro-pop sounds. "Hasta" is the lead single from her 2012 album of the same name. The video shows Hande serving up some Madonna "Hung Up"-era lilac feathered realness from a horizontal dance floor.