Grading the iTunes Hits


Pop hegemony: it’s back!

A few weeks ago, I had this weird experience where I looked at the iTunes top songs chart and realized I hadn’t heard like half the songs on it. And this wasn’t the first time that’d happened, either. The iTunes top downloads chart is pretty much the only singles chart worth paying attention to, partly because it measures what people are actually willing to pay money for and party because it stays in constant flux. Because of weird extramusical cultural events, an old-ass song from Jeff Buckley or Journey or DragonForce or the Dropkick Murphys can become a sudden hit, for a few days at least, while an unknown Israeli singer-songwriter chick can actually launch a career once Apple uses her song in a commercial and the thing catches on. The actual Billboard singles chart, meanwhile, lags way behind because it depends on radio airplay, and program directors aren’t exactly known for their adventurousness. So I think I might start doing this thing once a month or so where I look at the songs that are currently making moves and rate them on a Pitchfork-style ten-point scale because, I don’t know, it’s fun. This one’s going to have to do without “Lollipop” and “Love In This Club” because I’ve already written about both of them.

Leona Lewis: “Bleeding Love.” Lewis is a British nu-Mariah type who won one of those American Idol-esque talent shows. “Bleeding Love” is right now monstering the iTunes chart party because of the red-carpet PR treatment she’s getting (a whole Oprah show!) and partly because the song is some perfectly devised emo-pop machine. Lewis has a crazy range, swooping and yelping and unleashing 90s R&B runs all over the place, but she knows how to let her voice almost crack for maximum pathos-effect. The song was written by, yikes, Jesse McCartney and the guy from OneRepublic, and it fully indulges in the latter’s predilection for huge hammy choruses. And for whatever reason, the little woodblock clicks buried in the track totally make it for me; it’s like they wandered in from a mid-90s trip-hop compilation. The old Mariah is jealous right now. 8.1

Jordin Sparks: “No Air [feat. Chris Brown].” Holy shit: epic histrionic all-climax tingling synthpop, a welcome reminder that American Idol, for all its faults, still provides us the service of getting people who can actually sing on the radio. Chris Brown can’t hang with Sparks vocally, so he underplays his role, playing foil with his vulnerable little-kid schtick while Sparks just roils volcanically over him. I love the Edge-esque guitar-ripples, the delicate little string arpeggios, and the lyrical idea that this breakup is actually choking the air out of the kids singing about it, especially since the two people singing it manage to sound legitimately torn apart. Grandiloquent teen-heartbreak silliness doesn’t get any more operatic than this. 8.9

Lil Mama: “Shawty Get Loose [feat. Chris Brown & T-Pain].” “Lip Gloss” was great mostly because Lil Mama came off as this total no-bullshit normal teenage girl, rapping hard about makeup because makeup seemed worth rapping hard about. And I’m happy to report that her whole gum-smack persona remains durable enough to survive the transition to sci-fi synth-rap, mostly because she can really rap, double-timing like crazy over the generically expensive track. She’s the only good thing about this song. I like the idea of Chris Brown achieving Akon/T-Pain hook-singing ubiquity, largely because his sensitive-kid act is way more recognizably human than their robotune insta-hooks, but his chorus here evaporates upon contact. And people need to stop hiring T-Pain for rap-verses; he sounds like Will.I.Am mainlining Red Bull. 5.8

Ray J: “Sexy Can I [feat. Young Berg].” So I sort of have to respect Ray J for using a highly publicized sex-tape with a ridiculously hot celebutante to turn a one-hit career into a two-hit career, but I absolutely can’t find a single nice thing to say about this sub-Tyrese piece of self-satisfied anonymous hackery. Young Berg sort of bites Lil Wayne’s adenoidal yammer without doing anything with it. Ray J coos a bunch of gross anatomical shit about strippers. I don’t get why anyone thinks this shit is worth 99 cents. It needs to go away. 1.2

OneRepublic: “Stop and Stare.” Signs that pop divisions keep shrinking, part one billion: A one-off Timbaland collaboration turns a zero-charisma band into the latest inheritors of the Snow Patrol/Fray Starbucks-rock throne, the newest group to score by watering Coldplay down the same way Coldplay once watered down OK Computer-era Radiohead. I liked “Apologize” well enough, but it mostly had to do with the Timbaland stuff, the stuttering drums and echoed-out mouth-percussion that translated surprisingly well to waiting-room music. That stuff is all gone on “Stop and Stare,” and the serviceably cathartic power-ballad chorus isn’t enough to make up for that absence. Maybe this would sound better if Leona Lewis sang it. 4.4