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This week the new entries in the Hot 100 attain a near-perfect balance: Two good to great records (Passion Pit and Jerrod Niemann), two terrible ones (Karmin and Macklemore), and a bunch of mediocre stuff in the middle. Over the course of a year, the quality of the Hot 100 usually settles into a normal probability curve, but it’s rare to see the entire spectrum in a single week of new arrivals.
No. 61: OneRepublic, “Feel Again”
Unlike every other record Ryan Tedder has been associated with (Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” being the one exception), “Feel Again” doesn’t make me sputter with disgust every time I hear it. The usual pretentiousness is subdued, as are the drums, and Tedder’s occasional attempts at soulfulness are simply mistakes, rather than embarrassments. The gospel touches are pale imitations but at least they aren’t overplayed. OneRepublic has finally crossed over from major irritant to minor mediocrity. They can now be ignored in peace.
No. 73: Lupe Fiasco & Guy Sebastian, “Battle Scars”
Is “Battle Scars” Fiasco’s attempt to rectify his not picking up on the star-making “Nothing On You,” or his record company’s revenge? Whatever the case, his energies are obviously directed elsewhere: gender politics, conspiracy theories, turning Howard Zinn’s and Chris Hedges’s books into verses. Anything but love. After the first verse Fiasco is barely on this track, and considering his love-is-a-battlefield clichés that’s probably just as well. Except that it leaves us with nothing but Guy Sebastian’s pale Bruno Mars imitation.
No. 89: Karmin, “Hello”
“Hello” is what Glee would sound like if it was set in a prep school. Since Amy Heidemann isn’t yelping “Cheerio!” at the end of every line, this song is less irritating than “Brokenhearted,” but she still sings like an entitled, self-superior, spoiled brat, so much so that you wish someone would send her to her room until she learns how to behave around grown-ups (better known in her fantasy world as “the help”). Heidemann and her partner do know how to write, or at least steal hooks, and their music is as bright and bouncy as it is dead and dispiriting. But that only makes them more dangerous, especially when they’re lifting their choruses from Nirvana.
No. 94: Jerrod Niemann, “Shinin’ On Me”
It’s too late to nominate another record for country music’s song of the summer, but here’s one anyway. “Shinin’ On Me” starts off much like Niemann’s previous records, laid back but precise, with an eccentric organ winding through the buildup to the chorus. Then, out of nowhere, a horn section appears, and suddenly we’re in Memphis or Muscle Shoals circa 1969 with a drunken trombone player and a Duane Allman-inspired slide guitarist. The feeling never lets up, and Niemann, who’s full of surprises, finishes with a multi-part vocal coda lifted from The Band. The horn chart is so good I’ve barely paid attention to the lyrics, which are some banality about the sun always shining when she’s around or such. Who cares? This is the happiest record I’ve heard since “Call Me Maybe.” I hope it’s a trend.
No. 96: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz, “Thrift Shop”
Hot on the heels of Asher Roth and Mac Miller comes Macklemore, the most offensive white collegiate rapper of them all. His music is more clever and polished, but his overwhelming air of superiority turns almost everything he says into an insult. The beat on “Thrift Shop” is good, but it’s designed to show off Macklemore’s goofy cleverness more than anything else. The same goes for the verses, which veer from immature attempts at shock (an R. Kelly urination reference; repeating “motherfucker” like an eight year-old who’s just discovered the word), lame attacks on consumerism (presented as personal insult, of course), and blatant racial stereotyping. Since he intends to offend, I assume Macklemore realizes that having a black man look at him in his thrift store duds and say “damn, that’s a cold-ass honky” (what, no “yassur”?) is questionable in all sorts of ways. That doesn’t mean that Macklemore is a racist; it means he’s a condescending asshole. I just hope his fans can tell the difference.
No. 99: Passion Pit, “Take A Walk”
Starting last year with Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” a succession of indie records has appeared in the top ten: fun.’s “We Are Young,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” then fun. again with “Some Nights.” Each of these records, though different in style, has shared features with “Kicks.” They’ve all had strong hooks without being candy-coated pop; they’ve all depended on rhythm as much as melody without explicitly being dance music; they’ve all told a story of one kind or another; and the message of each was serious, reflective, and self-doubting. (They were also hits long before radio picked up on them, though that’s true of a lot of records lately.)
“Take A Walk” sounds like it may soon join them. It shares all the features of its predecessors with the added potency of politics and economic misery. Its story of an immigrant businessman ruined by the economic downturn and desperately trying to hide his situation might be just the sort of soundtrack people will want for the next two months. The lyrics are heavy-handed in spots, and not as sympathetic as they might be at the end, but the vocals make up for some of that, and the music moves forward as relentlessly as fate itself. Watch if this makes an impression on the mass audience, and if radio will dare to pick up on it.
No. 100: Kelly Rowland featuring Lil Wayne, “Ice”
A misguided attempt to recreate the success of “Motivation”: same basic idea, same basic beat, even some of the same lines. But though Rowland is still Rowland, for good and bad, Lil Wayne hasn’t been himself for a while now, and he shows no sign of recovery. Not that Wayne at his best could make much of this song, with its pornographic clichés and first-grade spelling lesson. Worst moment: The strange emphasis put on “he hates it when I use my hands,” which breaks the mood like a slap in the face.