It's the most wonderful time of the year: the end, where culture critics spend every waking moment trying to fine tune lists of their favorite stuff from the past year. My own top 10 film list will be out later this week, but I wanted to make time to hand craft another favorite list. For the second year in a row, I am proud to present the worst pop songs of the year. I spent far too much time this year listening to top 40 radio, just so I could make this for you. A few self-imposed guidelines:
1. Only 2015 songs eligible. When in doubt, I go with the date listed by Google. (Congratulations, George Ezra! Despite your song "Budapest" boring a hole in my head - and I do mean boring - for much of this year, it has been spared the axe thanks to a technicality of dates).
2. Only mainstream songs that received top 40 radio play. This is both ideological (I don't want to beat up on the thousands of shitty but powerless bands that slopped something up on Bandcamp this year) and practical (for the sake of my sanity). It also means that, aside from the inevitable bland crossover hits, you won't find much rap, country, or "hard rock" on the list. It is what it is.
3. Only one song per artist.
Before I get to the main countdown, a few category awards for songs that couldn't quite make the final cut.
Worst Collaboration (Cross Generational Category)
Iggy Azalea and Britney Spears - Pretty Girls
What happens when the world's most irritating rapper teams up with a washed up teen idol? Apparently the answer to this question is: a half-assed, atonal tribute to popular girls that sounds like the bastard offspring of an NES game soundtrack and a Gregorian chant CD. It also features the lines "Is it true that these men are from Mars?/Is that why they be acting bizarre?", presented without comment. If there's one glimmer of hope amidst the trash wasteland of 2015 pop music, it's that the listening public knew enough to take a hard pass on this song, which quickly faded from the rotation of my local station and vanished from the cultural conversation, leaving only traces of what might have been.
Worst Collaboration (Spitting on the Grave of a Legend Category)
Charlie Puth ft. Meghan Trainor - Marvin Gaye
All it took was seven words to ruin my life forever: "Let's Marvin Gaye and get it on". This is a triple whammy lyric. Not only does it verb a noun - a proper noun! - and coin a new, terrible euphemism for sex, it also drags poor Marvin Gaye through the mud. By all accounts the man had a troubled life, even by celebrity standards, and a tragic death, and now he has to suffer the indignity of becoming fodder for the gentle-spanking sex life of some 18 year old babyface? Worse than that, it's likely that for this upcoming generation the name Marvin Gaye will only make sense in the context of sweaty high school dances spent trying to grope their significant other to some terrible mewing duet. There was a time of innocence, before Charlie Puth's "Marvin Gaye", but that time is no more.
To be fair, there's MUCH more to hate about this song than just the opening line. Not content to sully Gaye's name, the piece also apes his style - sort of. This is dollar store Motown of the sort that Trainor - to whom I regretfully gave a pass in last year's edition of this list - trades in constantly. Here, though, we not only have to suffer through her milquetoast voice, we get the added pleasure of Puth's Boy Scouty crooning.
Key Lines: Aside from the opening assault, the song also features gems like "It's Kama Sutra Show and Tell" and "I'm like a stray without a home/I'm like a dog without a bone". Which, WINK.
Worst Euphemism for Sex (Non Marvin Gaye Desecrating Category)
DNCE - Cake by the Ocean
2015 marked the glorious return of a pop persona absolutely no one wanted back, Joe Jonas. WIth his new outfit DNCE (fill in that first vowel yourself - I'm going with "U") Jonas managed to, well, annoy the hell out of me, for starters, and also introduce a neologism that hopefully no one adopts: "Cake by the Ocean", apparently a malapropism of "Sex on the Beach", but one ripe with disgusting possibilities.
Home of the most confection-based lyrics this side of "I Want Candy", "Cake by the Ocean" forces its metaphor at every turn. Who could forget Jonas' plaintive cry when he pleads "I'm going blind from this sweet sweet craving"? Who could fail to be moved internally (likely in the bowel region) by his description of his lover as he finds her "Licking frosting from her own hand". The true stroke of genius, though, is DNCE's decision to end the song with Jonas literally just listing out types of cake, as reality bends back on itself and parody becomes impossible: "Red velvet, vanilla, chocolate in my life/Funfetti, I'm ready, I need it every night". Poetry in motion, my friends. (Special bonus for the song including a truly obscure culture reference in the line "I'll be Didd and you be Naomi". I'm ashamed to say I had no idea what this meant; thankfully Genius was there to inform me that "Naomi Campbell and P Diddy dated briefly in 2002". Who says kids these days have no sense of history?
The Top 5(+) Worst Songs of the Year
5. X Ambassadors - Renegades
Can we all agree that the worst trend in pop music of the last 5 years has been the ascendancy of the sensitive, clapping male hipster band? With a sound like the reject pile of open mic night at the local brewpub, and the vocal prowess of a weakly brewed batch of tea, these bands get by on their "searching" lyrics and a patina of grungy DIY style.
After the repeated assaults on our senses by bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, X Ambassadors has apparently been sent to finish the job. They have all the hallmarks of a crappy SCMHB, including lyrics that aren't really lyrics ("Hey hey hey, hey hey hey" - acceptable if and only if you are a Fat Albert tribute act), lots of clapping, and an attitude of vague discontent with consumer society.
Here that coalesces into a tribute to "renegades", those crusty outsiders who protest society so much that they enact radical social change by growing beards, making their own kombucha, and writing songs that Raffi would denounce as a bit too simplistic. The best thing about this song is that the verses are only four lines long, just enough time to engage in insubstantial dreck like "Long live the pioneers/Rebels and mutineers/Go forth and have no fear/Come close and lend an ear". No, seriously, that's verse 2 of this song, not something I picked up out of a Treasure Island random phrase generator.
The icing on the cake, though, the line that absolutely sealed this song's presence on my list, is this doozy, which happens to be verse 3: "All hail the underdogs/All hail the new kids/All hail the outlaws/The Spielbergs and Kubricks". Because nothing says outlaw more than one of the most respected directors to ever work inside the Hollywood system, one often derided (incorrectly) for his slickness and lack of depth. Kubrick I kind of get (but even he's not exactly John Cassavetes) but picking Spielberg for an example of a renegade is like saying Michael Jordan is your favorite baseball player. It's not technically a category error, but it might as well be.
4. Halsey - New Americana
For a good chunk of the year, all the songs on my main list were by male artists. While this didn't bother me in and of itself - I take much more satisfaction out of bashing my own gender than I do any other - I was a bit worried that some MRA rando would stumble on this list and start harassing me as a self-hating man. So I'm glad I discovered this truly terrible song, one that transcends gender to reach a state of universal crapitude.
The last few years have seen a rash of thinkpieces in newspapers and magazines wondering just what is wrong with those millenials, anyway? Imagine if all the specious arguments from those pieces gained sentience and decided to become a song - that's Halsey's somnambulent "New Americana". Sporting a sound that can only be described as "sub-Lorde-esque", Halsey monotones her way through this train wreck of lazy references and smug self-satisfaction.
Given how few ideas the song actually puts forward, it's kind of impressive how much banality it achieves. The chorus is a perfect example of the Mad Libs style of cultural reference that stands in for any actual substance in discussing America's rising generations: "We are the New Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the New Americana". Nod to a contemporary news event that "proves" how "superior" the new generation is to those that have come before? Check. Reference to two of the most obvious, least interesting cultural influences on said current generation? Check.
If "New Americana" is an opening salvo in the coming inter-generational wars, then I'm turning traitor and signing up for team old.
3. Imagine Dragons - I Bet My Life
I have a long running joke with myself about how terrible Imagine Dragons is. Their usual sound reminds me of what would happen if you shoved an acapella group into the transporter from Cronenberg's The Fly.
Still, what's genuinely impressive about their newest hit song, "I Bet My Life", is how different it is from the other works in their ouvre. It isn't many bands that could change gears so dramatically, from cyborg light metal to SCMHB, and still have the ensuing result be just as dull as their other work. This takes dedication, folks.
At the (shriveled, barely murmuring) heart of the song lies a dilemma. The singer spends most of his time talking about how he has let everyone down but how he had to escape home, but then pivots in the chorus to saying "So I, I bet my life/I bet my life, I bet my life on you". What's troubling here is not so much the excessive, simplistic repetition (that's to be expected), but the word "so" itself. Not to try to analyze Imagine Dragons by the laws of logic (puny restraints they long ago left behind), but "so" implies some sort of logical connection between what comes before and what follows. I think what they really want to say is "But". Even by the end of the song the singer still seems defiant ("Don't tell me that I'm wrong") but in need of affirmation. No one tell Imagine Dragons that this isn't how life works - I would not want to dry up the creative spring that gushes forth with gems like "I've told a million lies, but/Now I tell a single truth/There's you in everything I do".
2. Omi - Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)
By sheer accident, both this year and last the number 2 slot on my list has been occupied by a song that has both reggae pretensions and an odious sense of gender politics. [Special note: I slotted in Nick Jonas' abominable "Jealous" to tie with "Cheerleader" in this spot, only to discover that it was in fact a late 2014 release. You've escaped this time, Nick Jonas, but I have my eye on you]. In defense of Omi's "Cheerleader", it does not begin to approach the levels of badness of last year's "Rude". The sort of casual objectification of women that takes place in "Cheerleader" seems to spring from Omi's "impish boyishness"; that is to say, he appears stuck in 9th grade. This is a man, after all, who sings the lines "Cause I'm the wizard of love/And I got the magic wand". HUGE WINK.
The most offensive thing about "Cheerleader" is its infectiousness, in both senses of the word. Unlike, say, the auteurs behind "Rude", Omi and his remixer at least understand how to thread together an earworm melody, but it's one that will work itself inside of you and then explode, ruining every inch of your innards with its awful bounce. This is the sort of tune that will haunt you for years, working itself out in night terrors and daytime flashbacks. I suspect it's like the monster from It Follows, and will chase you until you either kill it, or spread the disease on to someone else.
1. *TIE* Fall Out Boy - Centuries and Fall Out Boy - Uma Thurman
At this point, if you carefully read the guidelines above, you should be scratching your head. Didn't he say only one song per artist? Yes, that's true my friends, but I have a reason for my tie at the top. The philosopher Leibniz proposed something called the Principle of Identity of Indiscernibles, which states that if two objects have all features in common and those cannot be distinguished from each other, then it can be assumed that they are the same. I propose a corollary: if two songs by the same artist have the exact same level of crappiness, can we really separate them in our minds?
I think that, technically speaking, I was in the target audience when Fall Out Boy became a thing back in the early 2000s. Thankfully I had my head buried in the sand of classical music at that point, and never really explored their vast catalog. Therefore, I'm not qualified to weigh in on how much these new songs betray the spirit/sell out the sound of the first iteration, etc.
What I am qualified to weigh in on is how utterly terrible both of these songs are. And whoo boy, are they bad. Let's start with "Centuries", which already seems fated to become a constant anthem on sports broadcasts for the next 10+ years (in totally unrelated news, I'm putting a ten year moratorium on my watching of sports broadcasts). On the surface it claims to be about going down in history, but I suspect it's actually about using language in such a way that it becomes meaningless. Take these lines: "Some legends are told/Some turn to dust or to gold". What, exactly, does this mean? How does a legend turn to dust?
Here are some other lines from the song, presented without comment (because, really, none needed). " Mummified my teenage dreams/No, there's nothing wrong with me/The kids are all wrong, the story's all off/Heavy metal broke my heart". Ok wait, I know I said "presented without comment", but I just wanted to note, for the record, what a shame it was that heavy metal didn't also break Pete Wentz's vocal chords. And again: "Cause I am the opposite of amnesia". But you both spring from the same source: a heavy blow to the head.
Meanwhile, "Uma Thurman" goes its own way to the darkness, the blackness, forever, adopting a terrible faux surf rock sound to pay homage to Quentin Tarantino, his leading lady, and utter nonsense. It feels fitting to me that the final ending point of QT's rotten corpus lies not in the dozens of 90's direct to video Pulp Fiction knock offs, but in an even more embarrassing place, this bland pastiche drenched in flop sweat.
Here Fall Out Boy moves from poking holes in the logical construction of language to leaping into the stratosphere of chaos, formless and void. Take the four lines that masquerade as Verse 2: "The blood, the blood, the blood of the lamb/Is worth two lions but here I am/And I slept in last night's clothes and tomorrow's dreams/But they're not quite what they seem". I defy you to make sense of these lines. They're like the Putnam problems of contemporary pop music.
At least those lines do not seem to be packed with explicit reference to QT's collaborations with Uma Thurman. Much of the rest of the song plays like an extended in joke, with nods aplenty to Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill films. It's the sort of smirking, pandering garbage move that allows Fall Out Boy to signal their hipness, while actually condemning them to irrelevance.
What the song shares in common with "Centuries" is its commitment to praising the singer's miraculous powers. Here he sings "I can move mountains/I can work a miracle, Work a miracle". And indeed, in one sense he's right. "Uma Thurman" and "Centuries", taken together, represent a transcendent badness, a sort of anti-miracle. This is Buckner boot bad. Butt fumble bad. Dan Brown bad. With talent as small as a mustard seed, Fall Out Boy has moved the mountains of contemporary pop music into the sea of their own sinkholing sound. May we all drown in the delicate, delicious seafoam that arises from the splash.