Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The January 1st edition of the Baltimore City Paper has my first Rap Sheet column of 2014, with news about E the poet-emcee and more, and my first Short List of 2014.

My Top 50 TV Shows of 2013

Monday, December 30, 2013

1. The Venture Bros. (Cartoon Network)
2. Breaking Bad (AMC)
3. Sons Of Anarchy (FX)
4. Bob's Burgers (FOX)
5. 30 Rock (NBC)
6. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
7. Happy Endings (ABC)
8. The Mindy Project (FOX)
9. New Girl (FOX)
10. Veep (HBO)
11. Suits (USA)
12. The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
13. Drunk History (Comedy Central)
14. Newsreaders (Cartoon Network)
15. Childrens Hospital (Cartoon Network)
16. Saturday Night Live (NBC)
17. Key & Peele (Comedy Central)
18. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
19. The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC)
20. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
21. Parks & Recreation (NBC)
22. Mom (CBS)
23. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
24. The Pete Holmes Show (TBS)
25. Alpha House (Amazon Prime)
26. Parenthood (NBC)
27. Burning Love (E!)
28. Episodes (Showtime)
29. Shameless (Showtime)
30. Suburgatory (ABC)
31. Eagleheart (Cartoon Network)
32. Justified (FX)
33. The Americans (FX)
34. The Newsroom (HBO)
35. Girls (HBO)
36. Workaholics (Comedy Central)
37. Haven (SyFy)
38. The Soup (E!)
39. Community (NBC)
40. Futurama (Comedy Central)
41. True Blood (HBO)
42. Rizzoli & Isles (TNT)
43. The Blacklist (NBC)
44. Funny Or Die presents Billy On The Street (Fuse)
45. Ray Donovan (Showtime)
46. The Voice (NBC)
47. Hello Ladies (HBO)
48. American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
49. Catfish: The TV Show (MTV)
50. The Eric Andre Show (Cartoon Network)

Last year I adopted this pared down format, after years of doing more long-winded year-end TV lists like my various music lists. And it suited me well, especially these days as I tend to just kind of put my favorite shows on while I'm writing or thinking about something else and don't necessarily have a lot to say about why I enjoy or don't enjoy certain shows, beyond saying what I enjoy. In any event, a few scattered thoughts:

* The Venture Bros. aired its first season in 2004, and aired its fifth season in 2013. Through it all, it's been one of the funniest, most densely and smartly written shows on TV, to the point that I don't even mind that it's taken a decade for them to rack up five seasons, the latest of which was the shortest yet. I'll have to rewatch the latest episodes on DVD to really have an idea of how it measures up to past seasons, but it feels like they've finally stopped exploring the characters' backstories and are just having fun with the world they've created, and the season premiere was one of the show's all-time greatest episodes.

* I've always been pretty critical of Breaking Bad, for some reason it's a show you're not supposed to just like but think it's a flawless artistic achievement, but I've always thought it had a lot of hacky contrivances and storytelling issues. I thought it ended strong with the last season, though -- there were things about the finale that bothered me on a thematic level, but I respected how they pulled it off, since it's the kind of show where a really bad finale could've soured the whole thing.

* Sons Of Anarchy only has one season left, and I hope it ends satisfyingly, but it feels like it'll be impossible for the show to be any more gripping than it was this year. For a show full of macho fantasies about biker dudes, it's always had compelling, fleshed out female characters who are as flawed and volatile as the men, going against the "male anti-hero acts, women around them react" pattern of a lot of cable dramas these days. The Tara/Gemma relationship came to a head this year in a really horrifying, unanticipated way, the biggest punch to the gut in a show that's been full of shocking, emotionally draining moments.

* I started doing year-end TV lists in 2006, the year 30 Rock premiered, and the show has been in my top 5 every single year since then, so it seemed right to let it keep that honor for its final year, even though it aired only 5 episodes in 2013. They never fell off, and they went out on top. I worked at the Kennedy Center one day a few weeks ago when they were shooting Carol Burnett's Mark Twain Prize special, and I got to sneak into the theater during Tina Fey's rehearsal and watch her work on her speech, and she is just a genius to me, it was amazing just to see her improvise and try out ideas and toss out and reject lines that were hilarious.

* Masters Of Sex was easily my favorite new show of the year, the rare respectable Showtime drama coming along just when Homeland had finally become unwatchable for me. Lizzy Caplan, my biggest crush in show business for several years running now, has such a contemporary sense of humor and sarcasm in most of her performances that I worried she'd be a sore thumb in a period piece, but her performance has been an exercise in restraint, and although the show often uses a heavy hand to work out its themes, I think it pulled off its first season incredibly well.

* While I will miss 30 Rock and Breaking Bad and Futurama, they all got to stay on the air a good long while, and the show I am really annoyed about getting canceled this year was Happy Endings, which still had a lot of gas in the tank. Still, it was comforting that almost immediately in the following fall, some of its stars had become regulars in two of its closest cousins on network primetime: Adam Pally to the rapidly improving The Mindy Project, and Damon Wayans, Jr. back to New Girl, which he'd appeared in the pilot of before jumping ship to Happy Endings. All I know is this USA pilot Eliza Couple is starring in better be worth her time.

* I have no regrets on giving up on Homeland, but I have fallen behind on a lot of shows I liked and may catch up on someday, like How I Met Your Mother. I kinda wish I was watching Nashville or Scandal or The Good Wife, but it increasingly feels impossible to keep up with network dramas who put 20-something hours of programming on the air every year, compared to the shorter orders for cable dramas, or the comedies that are a half hour and don't necessarily need to be viewed in sequence. These days the domestic comfort food of Parenthood is the only network drama I can keep up with, partly because it comes on Thursdays after the NBC comedies I'm already watching (my interest is already waning in The Blacklist).

* After years of thinking Parks & Recreation was vastly overrated, I think the show is now funnier than ever, although Rob Lowe leaving doesn't seem like a good thing (he'd been underused lately anyway). Still in the middle tier of NBC comedies, though, especially with The Michael J. Fox Show being one of my favorite new shows. Community's Dan Harmon-less 4th season was not great, but not as huge a drop from its middling 3rd season as some would have you believe, but I am looking forward to some improvement, any improvement at all, with Harmon's return in the upcoming episodes.

* NBC is still the most represented network on this list, as it usually is, with 8 series. Behind it Comedy Central has 7, HBO has 5, and FOX and Showtime and FX have 4 each. After years of being notorious for canceling promising shows after one season, Comedy Central finally seems to have some momentum with its primetime programming - Drunk History is hysterical, Key & Peele is kind of a one trick pony, but it's hitting its peak right now, and my old college acquaintance Amy Schumer has really impressed me with her show.

* Newsroom continues to annoy me greatly as distinctly as Sorkin's diminishing returns, but the second season was much more enjoyable than the first, as I got used to what irritated me and was able to just enjoy the isolated scenes that were really well written and performed.

My Top 50 Albums of 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 was a really, really, really hard year for me. I would say music helped me through it, and it did, but even listening to music, or getting through a whole song in one sitting, much less a whole album, was virtually impossible most days, so even that was a source of stress for me. But I kept listening to and writing about a huge amount of music this year because there were so many records coming that excited and intrigued me, that made me happy to be alive and paying attention right now. And paying attention should be rewarding -- one gets a sense sometimes from music critics that the more we hear, the less we're able to actually enjoy any of it, like any hardcore addict or fetishist who needs more and more extreme stuff just to get anything approaching the desired feeling that used to come with ease when we were younger and more easily impressed. But I dunno, I feel like music is nourishing and fortifying my existence in ways it didn't even when I was a teenager and I lived for it. I'm not really to stop caring.

Of course, 'paying attention' these days is pretty insane -- Spotify and other streaming services have enabled me to listen to practically every new album I have even the slightest interest in listening to, and this running 2013 albums playlist of everything on Spotify that I've listened to is over 150 albums deep. Once you factor in stuff not on Spotify that I listened to on DatPiff or Bandcamp or wherever, I'm probably over 200. That's an insane number, but processing that much made it really easy to think of over 50 albums that I found really impressive and enjoyable this year, that didn't have the immediate and obvious flaws or frustrations that most of those 200 albums had. And as many of those albums are discarded and forgotten after a couple listens, these are the ones I kept going back to. I also made a shorter, more digestible Best of 2013 playlist with one track each from the top 50.

1. Paramore - Paramore
Releasing a self-titled album in the middle of your career has always struck me as kind of a haughty gesture, particularly in the midst of changes in sound or personnel, defiantly stating "you may have liked those other records, but this one is the real me/us, deal with it." That's absolutely the case with Paramore, which was written after two key members left the band in a huff, declaring in a manufactured star vehicle for frontwoman Hayley Williams. But instead of going solo as a pop diva, Williams regrouped with the two other remaining members (who only had a handful of writing credits on their previous albums), and refashioned Paramore into a better, more adventurous band. That narrative, though it hovers around triumphant, life-affirming anthems like "Ain't It Fun" and "Grow Up," may actually be the least interesting thing about the album, however. It's the gigantic hooks, the dizzying variety, the generously detailed and glimmeringly textured production that kept me coming back to this 64-minute beast of an album over and over without ever feeling the need to skip a track. Williams can sing a solemn, sincere breakup song like "Hate To See Your Heart Break" on one track, and in the next sing a satirical stalker's lament like "[One of Those] Crazy Girls" and somehow the emotion is just as real and deeply felt in both. The droning lo-fi 8-minute closer "The Future" coexists on an album with the giddy, fuzzed-out punk of "Anklebiters," the anthemic Blondie homage "Daydreaming," and the swinging synth pop of "Ain't It Fun." Members of a band that had no indie cred to begin with defected in the name of integrity, and Paramore turned around and became an amazing band just to prove that that bullshit doesn't actually matter.

2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park
When her breakthrough single, "Merry Go 'Round," showed up last year, Kacey Musgraves cut right through all the affectionate good ol' boy celebrations of Southern culture on country radio with the terse, unpleasant realities of small town blue collar life. And if she'd just repeated that trick over and over, it'd be a memorable and probably still very acclaimed album, but it wouldn't be a great album. Same Trailer Different Park is the heartbreaking album about the downtrodden middle class that Springsteen was trying to make last year, songs like "Back On The Map" and "Blowin' Smoke" getting me through a year where I worked harder just to be broke than I ever have in my life. Her dry, matter-of-fact delivery and economic songwriting even makes the more topically pedestrian songs like "I Miss You" and "Keep It Yourself" strangely affecting in a way most country singers wouldn't even think to try.

3. Fantasia - Side Effects of You
Side Effects of You is less a solo effort than an album-length collaboration between Fantasia Barrino and Harmony "H-Money" Samuels, who produced all but one track on it. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Samuels produced an array of hit singles for Ariana Grande, Sevyn Streeter, Keyshia Cole and others, and no two songs sounded alike. That same variety is present in Side Effects of You, which runs through pretty much every kind of track you might want to hear Fantasia sing over, from the Whitney homage "Change Your Mind" to the uptempo funk workout "Get It Right" to the reggae inflections of "Ain't All Bad" to my single of the year, "Without Me." Ever since winning American Idol, Fantasia's vocal ability and charisma has never been in doubt, but "When I See U" aside, her material never quite matched her talent until Side Effects of You.

4. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap
I wouldn't have imagined 8 months ago when first listening to Acid Rap that I'd eventually be calling it the best rap record of the year. I immediately recognized that it was good, but I had a lot of misgivings: 1) Chance's voice took some getting used to, especially those "nehnehnehneh-AH!" ad libs, 2) weariness over not-ready-for-primetime Chicago rappers being hyped into the major leagues, 3) weariness over the "wait, Chance is actually the anti-Chief Keef" narrative, 4) guest spots by rappers I try to avoid like Childish Gambino and Action Bronson, and 5) opening the mixtape with a sample of an intro from one of Kanye's early mixtapes. Thankfully, I kept listening and let all that stuff stop bothering me, as I came to realize that nobody else in rap this year had made such a dense, textured, quick-witted, energetic and big-hearted album.

5. 2 Chainz - B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME
His first major label solo album, last year's Based On A T.R.U. Story, went gold and established 2 Chainz as a big star, but by the time the thing had run its course, it kinda felt like all the best songs were singles and that dude didn't really know how to make an album. So it's bittersweet that a year later he came back with the consistent, well rounded album he should've made the first time, but the singles weren't hitting the same way so the thing sold less than half as much as its predecessor. 2 Chainz is an incorrigible goofball, and if you're the kind of rap fan who has no time for that, this album won't convince you, but you enjoy him in the concentrated bursts of his best guest verses, B.O.A.T.S. II delivers peak 2 Chainz in huge servings. And even something like "So We Can Live," which spans almost 7 minutes and switches up the beat mid-song, hints at the more cerebral, emotional side of 2 Chainz that he earnestly tried and failed to put across on the first album. Even Chance The Rapper had to give him props for how cohesive this album is.

6. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
I always end up fishing my albums list for the year later than I wanted to, but I love being able to throw some great December release into my top 10 after most people finalized their lists in late November, and there's
never been a more example than Beyoncé's surprise blockbuster a couple weeks ago. Obviously, I'm still digesting the record, and haven't even watched any of the videos yet, but the whole thing is pretty undeniably awesome. It's obviously building on a lot of things that she tried for the first time on 4, and is a full 20 minutes longer than that album and lacking its automatic standout masterpieces, but it feels more consistent and fully realized as a whole. The way the universal themes tangle up with the things that really only a handful of people in the world, if not only Beyoncé, can actually speak on, often within the same song on "Pretty Hurts" or the incredible "Rocket," just feels so awe-inspiring and ambitious, and I've never really been one to bow down to B's supremacy as a fact of life.

7. Amel Larrieux - Ice Cream Everyday
A big part of R&B becoming "cool" to people that for some reason didn't consider it worth their time a couple years ago was the way newer acts like Miguel and Frank Ocean were using trippy production styles associated with the underground -- muffled drums, wobbly synths, instruments abruptly cutting in and out of the mix, and surreal soundscapes. Of course, R&B acts have been trading in sonics like this for ages, but a lot of them have been hippie neo-soul types, the uncoolest acts out there. So it was cool to see someone like Amel Larrieux, who's been more or less ignored on the periphery of mainstream R&B for over a decade, come around with some of the most gorgeously intimate, idiosyncratic production on any album of any genre this year. But it's Larrieux's guileless, unguarded songwriting and stark vocal production on songs like "Have You" and "Ur The Shhh" that really makes the record sparkle and resonate beyond just the cool sounds surrounding her voice. 

8. Kevin Gates - Stranger Than Fiction
Less than 6 months after Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates released his breakthrough mixtape, The Luca Brasi Story, he released the independent album Stranger Than Fiction. Releasing two high quality projects in one year is impressive, but inevitably one is going to get more praise than the other, and the one that was released first and for free seemed to have the advantage. Stranger Than Fiction ended up being my favorite, though, with its mix of storytelling on "4:30am," knowing ignorance on "Thinking With My Dick," and ill-advised but entertaining experiment with rapping in character with cartoonish accents on "Careful."

9. Ariana Grande - Yours Truly
A disciple of Mariah Carey whose debut album samples old hits by Big Punisher, Lil Kim and Mary J. Blige, Ariana Grande could be the first '90s baby to participate heavily in pop music's incoming '90s revival. But between the doo wop overtones of the album's bookends, "Honeymoon Avenue" and "Better Left Unsaid," and the general air of earnest innocence around Grande's entire vocal style and public persona, what Yours Truly really offers is R&B at its most bubblegum. And in a year when R&B was often depicted as only interesting or credible when it was debauched and drugged out, that managed to be pretty refreshing, nevermind the fact that the album was just executed incredibly well, with lots of help from Babyface himself and the 2013 R&B MVP, Harmony "H-Money" Samuels.

10. Elvis Costello And The Roots - Wise Up Ghost
Being on the younger side of Elvis Costello's fanbase, the idea of him being on a permanent artistic decline, of his best music having been mostly recorded before I was born, is this ominous cloud that hangs over the dozens of new albums he continues to make. I've always done my best to get out from under that cloud, though, and enjoy those albums for what they are, and Wise Up Ghost is my favorite since The Delivery Man, if not Painted From Memory. The Roots aren't The Attractions, but they're a good match with Costello for a lot of the same reasons: strong rhythm section, a large arsenal of synth textures, an encyclopedic knowledge of American music. And Wise Up Ghost is more in line with the murky funk of later albums like Game Theory, which I love. That these two chameleonic serial collaborators got together to mostly sound like themselves is a pleasant surprise.

11. The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law
Two years ago, The Joy Formidable's debut full-length The Big Roar was my album of the year. And the follow-up is very nearly its equal, and in some ways is more varied, and more surprising, with all sorts of new wrinkles in their sound and the texture of the production. But it didn't have a killer single on the level of "Whirring," and maybe the newness of the band wore off and a lot of people moved on, so Wolf's Law didn't get nearly the same amount of attention. But it definitely wasn't a sophomore slump.

12. Tegan And Sara - Heartthrob
I'd never really listened to Tegan And Sara before this record, and came into it more as a fan of the album's producer, Greg Kurstin, who made a similar alternative-to-pop transition as they did over the past decade, but behind the scenes. Of course, this album's whole crossover Cyndi Lauper 2K13 sound was aimed at winning them new fans, so it worked on me.

13. Dungeonesse - Dungeonesse
In a way, Dungeonesse is a similar "indie kids do synth pop" story as the Tegan And Sara record, although that move's been pulled enough times now that I'm more enamored of the execution than the novelty. And in this case, it was done by a couple of Baltimore musicians that I've been following for over a half decade -- I can still remember the first time I saw Jenn Wasner with Wye Oak at the Lo-Fi Social Club and the first time I saw Jon Ehrens with The Art Department at The Ottobar (the album also features a guest spot by the rapper DDm, who I can remember seeing battle at 5 Seasons back in the same era). And it's cool to hear people who I instantly saw potential in continue to surprise me with great new things.

14. Nova Starz - Dark Lovely Places... For The #Ragers
If Dungeonesse is a particularly good record that follows what is becoming a pretty good narrative (people from the indie world playing with the sounds of pop and R&B), this is another awesome record out of Baltimore that arrived at a similar destination from the opposite direction. Nova Starz and her producer Street Scott pushed way outside of their backgrounds in traditional R&B and hip-hop to create something different for her debut project, which was initially marketed as an EP but is pretty much a 9-track album (one of the tag's on the record's Soundcloud page is "urban indie pop," which seems appropriate"). I really enjoyed interviewing those guys and this remained one of the more unique and listenable projects that came out of Baltimore this year.

15. Superchunk - I Hate Music
Being my favorite band of the '90s is no guarantee that I'll love your new records, but Superchunk have kept me a faithful and loyal fan of their new material. And while the highs on I Hate Music may not be as high as the ones on 2010's Majesty Shredding, the whole thing holds together better. The death of a longtime friend of the band, Dave Doernberg, looms over the whole thing the way Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance's breakup loomed over 1994's Foolish, making one of indie rock's most eternally youthful bands sound aware of mortality like never before but

16. Lee Ranaldo And The Dust - Last Night On Earth
Sonic Youth are another one of my favorite bands, although one that may never make another album together. But members continue to work together, including Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley in Ranaldo's new band configuration, which toured for his 2012 album Between The Times And The Tides and seemed to quickly cohere into a solid unit with an even better album appearing just a year later. Ranaldo's collections of songs never quite live up to the fantasy I had of what they'd be like back when he was writing one or two awesome Sonic Youth songs per album, but the sound of this record is very close to the Murray Street era hippie jams that I'm a huge fan of.

17. Tate Kobang - Hitler Hardaway
It was dismaying to see recently, after putting Hitler Hardaway at the top of my list of the best Baltimore hip-hop release of 2013, that the mixtape doesn't appear to be online anywhere anymore. When I interviewed Tate Kobang earlier in the year, he'd just had a falling out with one of the tape's producers, Matic808, who put out his own great project this year, and some of Tate's videos had been taken offline. Now, it looks like the entire mixtape has followed suit, and it really sucks when one of your favorite albums of the year gets erased from the internet before the year is even over. Maybe hit up Tate on Twitter if you want to get it, though.

18. Birds And Arrows - Coyotes
There's something off about the mixing or mastering of this album, Birds And Arrows are not a very bass-heavy band but I hear this weird low end distortion or clipping whenever I turn up the volume. But this North Carolina husband-and-wife duo, who I've caught live a couple times on their frequent trips to Baltimore, continue to make charmingly intimate, twangy records that sound best at a moderate volume anyway.

19. K. Michelle - Rebellious Soul
If Keyshia Cole amped up the Mary J. Blige formula with more working class grit and indulgent vocal gymnastics, K. Michelle throws the whole thing off its axis by going to further extremes on both counts. The result is borderline camp, to the point that song titles like "Pay My Bills" and "Hate On Her" and "Coochie Symphony (Interlude)" helped make K. Michelle as much a Black Twitter meme as she is a popular R&B artist. But the vocals, production and songwriting on Rebellious Soul were all high quality enough to make the album function on its own terms as an album worth repeat plays, K. Michelle establishing herself as a female protege of R. Kelly that can actually  keep up with him in terms of outrageousness and personality.

20. Kanye West - Yeezus
My review of Yeezus was maybe the best and most certainly the most widely read thing I wrote this year. But in my efforts to avoid both the overly generous everything-he-does-is-brilliant praise and tedious 'let's rank all the Kanye albums' debates, a lot of people came away from the review thinking I hated the album and was panning it. The truth is, I hate his last couple solo albums and actually enjoy Yeezus more than any of his albums since Graduation, if not Late Registration. I'm still not convinced that Adam Sandler references and "'Strange Fruit' really goes well what I'm saying about child support" bullshit don't muddle and hurt the kind of social statements he's trying to make, just like pretty much everything he said in an interview this year failed so utterly to convince anyone of anything that stans set up a little cottage industry dedicated to Kansplaining away his scattershot analogies into something coherent. But the album sounds fantastic, and does something none of his other albums do (as opposed to My Beautiful Dark Late Registration Retread) and ultimately that matters to me more than the other stuff, at least in terms of what I want to listen to.

21. Matic808 - Yeezus: Baltimore Club Edition
The instant remixes that pop up within weeks, if not days, of every big event record are getting tiresome. But I've always been fascinated with how Baltimore club producers can make almost anything danceable, and Matic808 doing remixes of every track from a reputedly inaccessible album that urban radio practically ignored was just bold and awesome and worked even better in practice than it did in theory. Essential listening for any fan of the original Yeezus, and maybe even some of the people who hate it. Check it out on Soundcloud.

22. Juicy J - Stay Trippy
DJ Paul's recent Da Mafia 6ix project gives a good idea of what Juicy J could be doing right now that'd be more true to the Three 6 Mafia sound, but honestly I think it's kinda badass that he signed with Dr. Luke and one of major label rap's biggest sellout cautionary tales, Wiz Khalifa, and still basically managed to sound like himself. This album is full of jams, and yes Wale, it is better than your album, which also has strip club songs, but doesn't have any vague aspirations of being "conscious" rap to compromise on. Juicy J is just being himself, which is really the most you can ask any rapper to do on his album.

23. Prodigy & Alchemist - Albert Einstein
Prodigy is another old-ass rap dude who is totally incapable of trying to be anything but himself, in the best way. P and Alc's previous full-length collaboration, Return Of The Mac, is a minor classic to me, not too far behind Mobb Deep's best records, and this is a worthy follow-up that manages to stake out its own distinct aesthetic. Alchemist has such a great ear for these odd little textures in his tracks that go beyond boom bap revivalism, like "Stay Dope" is a genuinely weird, almost psychedelic production.

24. Bilal - A Love Surreal
Bilal has always been a neo soul 2nd stringer to me, the guy who seems to channel Prince the most of all his contemporaries but doesn't quite have the originality or charisma to be as amazing as Prince and just winds up being kind of annoying. So I was pleasantly surprised to find his vocal affectations less irritating than usual on A Love Surreal, his progressive jazz R&B pretentions leading him to something genuinely unique and interesting, at times approaching a kind of acoustic orchestral pop.

25. The Band Perry - Pioneer
No album in country, or perhaps in any genre, had as good a trio of hit singles this year as Pioneer's first three tracks. But the Perry siblings, who look like a gang of sexy hobbits, didn't slouch on the deep cuts, which include equally anthemic tracks like "I'm A Keeper" and "Forever Mine Nevermind." I hope they go six singles deep on this motherfucker.

26. Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines
The Blurred Lines album will always be overshadowed by its title track -- how could a gold album not be overshadowed by a sextuple platinum single? But the album deserves credit for being really solid and enjoyable both as a pop crossover effort and as an R&B album that sits well in Thicke's underrated back catalog.

27. Mr. Moccasin - XAHA
I have some vague connections to Mr. Moccasin -- the compilation of Baltimore bands that I helped assemble this year opened with a track by them, and weirdly my band only got to play the release party for that comp because Mr. Moccasin had to cancel (don't really know the band outside of Greg Hatem, though -- his solo project Heart Of Hearts also played a show with my band this year). In any event, hearing this band's stuff shortly before this record came out really bowled me over, definitely one of the best things I've heard out of the Baltimore indie scene in a while, even if I can't quite put my finger on what they're really doing that's special, there's just this otherworldly ambiance. Check out the record on Bandcamp.

28. They Might Be Giants - Nanobots
They Might Be Giants ended one of their best albums, 1992's Apollo 18, with "Fingertips," a suite of over a dozen tracks of even shorter and sillier songs than their usual fare, designed so that they'd be peppered throughout the album if the CD was played in the 'shuffle' mode that was still kind of a new thing at the time. Nanobots, a respectable follow-up to 2011's Join Us (which may have actually been their best since Apollo 18), attempts something like the "Fingertips" concept again, spreading nine tracks that run under a minute long throughout the album, and the result is absurd and entertaining and a little offputtingly nerdy, just as TMBG's best records often are.

29. The Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley
After Emergency & I established The Dismemberment Plan as both a more popular and more serious, somber band than they'd ever been before, there started being some debate about whether they were (gasp) an emo band, back when that was, like, a deadly important thing to know. Travis Morrison responded to that chatter with a post on the band's site that pointed out that when they released their goofball first record, they were getting compared to They Might Be Giants and not Rites of Spring or Hoover. That popped into my head a few times this year as fans of Emergency & I and Change were shocked and appalled to find that the band's big comeback record was kind of a playful, silly dad rock record and not a fraught emotional journey or whatever. In some ways, the album is a big step down from their best work, but as a fan of Morrison's widely reviled Travistan, I felt more prepared to accept the album on its own terms.

30. Deathfix - Deathfix
For every beloved D.C. band like The Dismemberment Plan that actually stays together for several records and then reunites years later, there are dozens that just splinter off and combine with members of other bands from the same incestuous scene under new names, to the point that it's hard to keep track of them all. So I was pretty annoyed with myself to realize just in the past week, while reading a year-end list, that Dischord released an album way back in March by a new band featuring a couple of my favorite D.C. musicians, Brendan Canty and Devin Ocampo. And though the thing very nearly gets derailed by an 8-minute novelty song called "Dali's House," it's otherwise a great listen, with some really talented guys exploring a kind of '70s riff rock sound that their previous bands have never really touched on before.

31. Kelly Rowland - Talk A Good Game
Kelly Ro killed it this year -- guest spots on my single of the year, Fantasia's "Without Me," as well as Future's "Neva End" and the Destiny's Child one-off reunion "Nuclear," and every single off of her best solo album to date, Talk A Good Game. She even addressed living in Beyoncé's shadow on "Dirty Laundry," in a way that gave her a more relateable public persona than she'd ever had before. Of course, then B came in at the end of the year and dominated everything again, once again insuring that people would continue to sleep on Kelly, but 

32. J. Roddy Walston & The Business - Essential Tremors 
J. Roddy Walston & The Business was a band in Tennessee before they relocated to Baltimore a decade ago, and at the moment only one member of the band still lives in the city. But they still feel like hometown heroes, and I always think fondly of them putting on some of the greatest shows I've ever seen at the Ottobar as they sign to ATO Records and tour the country and show up on national charts, especially when I hear "Marigold," one of Walston's songs most directly inspired by living in Baltimore.

33. DJ Mustard - Ketchup
For the first time in maybe 20 years, rappers all over the country are copping West coast sounds to stay current, and DJ Mustard is a huge part of that. Ketchup only lightly surveys the huge year he had, and doesn't include most of the big hits he produced, but it works as a great sampler of his tracks, which follow a Lil Jon or early Neptunes template of incorporating a huge variety of sounds within a pretty consistent rhythmic framework. Check it out on hotnewhiphop.com.

34. Meek Mill - Dreamchasers 3
Last year, Dreamchasers 2 broke records on mixtape sites like DatPiff, putting Meek's street buzz on an insane level that his major label album was doomed to not live up to (although I content that Dreams & Nightmares is underrated as fuck -- tell me the title track isn't one of the best rap songs of the last 5 years). Dreamchasers 3 only notched maybe a quarter as many downloads as 2 did, and it's hard to say he hasn't lost some career momentum, but there's still nobody in the mainstream making music like Meek, and I appreciate that he's around. "Lil N***a Snupe" is incredible and the homie J. Oliver from Baltimore killed the beat on "Ain't Me," even if they didn't credit him in the liner notes. Check out Dreamchasers 3 on DatPiff.

35. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Random Access Memories is like a Rattle & Hum for dance music, a Grammy bait blockbuster that alienated a large number of the people who'd anticipated it by spending much of its time trying to educate them on the group's influences. That would be an effective premise for one of the album's many angry, disappointed reviews, but I don't actually mean it in a bad way -- I think it's kind of awesome and subversive that a hit album with an Album of the Year nomination exists mainly to prop up guys like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder as B.B. King-like legends (which, hey, if the Rock'n'Roll HOF is gonna keep snubbing Chic, why not?). I could do without the cornballs from The Strokes and Animal Collection on vocals making the album vaguely 'current,' but as a sincere celebration of '70s cheese, these guys made a heck of a Trans Am album.

36. Audio Push - Come As You Are
I always thought "Teach Me How To Jerk" was low key the best record out of that whole movement, and even if Audio Push's whole thing these days seems to be about disavowing that record or not letting it define them, whatever, it helped me give this tape a chance, and I'm glad I did. Dudes have a lot of personality and some bars and Hit Boy gave them some of his best tracks ever on here.

37. Yo Gotti - I Am
Yo Gotti has always been trap rap's most generic, offbrand star, and his career finally seemed to bottom out after 2012's anti-climactic major label debut, Live From The Kitchen. Instead, he started finally making some hits that didn't rely on bigger guest stars, jumped from RCA to Epic, and came back bigger than ever. He's still not as charismatic or creative as a lot of his contemporaries, but right now he's winning with the sheer bulk of bangers he's putting out.

38. Thee Lexington Arrows - Dog That Bites
Hopefully when I put Baltimore artists on this list, it doesn't sound like I'm just plugging my friends' records because I know or have interviewed a lot of them -- I have to really dig their records to even think of including them here with all the records from everywhere else that I loved throughout the year. Thee Lexington Arrows is one band I do have a lot of connections with, though -- their frontwoman, Kathleen, one of my favorite singers in Baltimore, did me the great favor of singing on my band's debut single's A-side. Also, their bassist Curt has run our sound at The Sidebar whenever we've played there, and their guitarist, Alex, is a great illustrator whose work has accompanied several of my City Paper articles over the years (and also drew the awesome cover for Dog That Bites). But this record is here because Thee Lexington Arrows have been making killer garage rock for nearly a decade, and seem to just keep getting better at it.

39. Vinny Vegas - The Big White Whale
Vinny Vegas is another band from Baltimore whose singer, Scott, really impressed me and I also asked him to do some singing on the Western Blot record. They've been playing shows and releasing singles and EPs for years and years, and this is the full-length debut they finally came out with just a few weeks ago. I'm kinda still digesting it, it's a really dense work, these guys just write incredibly complex, dramatic songs, but it's just great to finally hear them stretch out on an album, it's always felt like their songs needed and deserved a whole LP to sprawl across.

40. Kevin Gates - The Luca Brasi Story
As previously mentioned, I've taken a stand on rating Stranger Than Fiction over its breakthrough predecessor, but I'm not gonna front, this is an awesome mixtape. Gates had a crazy year, totally deserves to be the only artist with two records on this list.

41. Ben Goldberg - Unfold Ordinary Mind
Awesome avant jazz from an all-star group featuring Nels Cline and Ellery Eskelin that I got to see in one of its first live performances last year. This kinda thing is always more exciting to me to see performed in person than to hear on record, but hearing the material live and then getting the record was a good way to be introduced to these songs.

42. Dawn Richard - Goldenheart
2013 was weird and a little anti-climactic for Dawn Richard. She finally released her first full-length retail album, but Goldenheart, good as it was, didn't quite have the staying power of its predecessor EP, last year's Armor On, and she quickly started releasing new tracks online that were more immediate and accessible than anything on the album. By the end of the year, she'd cut ties with the collaborator who'd produced most of her best songs, Andrew "Druski" Scott, and reunited with the girl group that first brought her fame but who she's long since outgrown artistically, Danity Kane. So I dunno if this is a lull in her career or the end of her being interesting -- I'm still holding out for a Diddy-Dirty Money reunion, too.

43. Tiffany Evans - 143 EP
Evans, who once upon a time years ago had a mildly popular single featuring Ciara, is stuck in that awkward interzone of almost-mainstream R&B artists who's years removed from their last major label release, is just now starting to make really good music, but doesn't have even the mild critical cachet that Dawn Richard managed to amass. This record was awesome, though, listen to it -- yet another 'EP' that's basically just a concise album the way people used to make them.

44. Haim - Days Are Gone
I'm not as crazy about this record as some people are, but it's enjoyable enough as a debut, and I could see them growing on me if they keep getting better from here. And it was fun to see women make unapologetically catchy pop/rock and get enough critical praise for it to drive the critics who would never stand for such a thing get really upset about that.

45. Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest
A few weeks ago, Sara Bareilles gained one of the most surprising, confusing Album Of The Year nominations in recent Grammy history -- The Blessed Unrest had a nonexistant critical profile, sold less than every other nominee (about a quarter as much as the next lowest selling album, Daft Punk), and its big hit single, "Brave," is mostly known for sounding like Katy Perry's "Roar" but blander. And it bums me out to see Bareilles becoming an emblem for Grammy voter cluelessness, because I've always thought she had a great, unique voice and makes lovely, well crafted records. People who like the Haim album would probably enjoy it!

46. Brad Paisley - Wheelhouse
Another incredibly uncool album I enjoyed this year was Brad Paisley's latest. Yes, "Accidental Racist" is a bad, bad song, but it may be the only bad song he's ever written, as he continues to be perhaps Nashville's most consistent star who writes his own songs and excels at deep cuts.

47. How To Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion
Hesitation Marks returned Trent Reznor to the Nine Inch Nails formula with few surprises, but up until that point he'd spent a few years in the wilderness of film scores, and experiments like NIN's great Ghosts I-IV, culminating in this woefully underappreciated side project. Reznor's own wife, Mariqueen Maandig, finally showed is that there's a way to sing over his versatile productions that made them sounded nothing like the same old same old industrial angst.

48. Atoms For Peace - AMOK
The most talented member of one of alternative rock's greatest bands collaborates with the weird-looking guy from Radiohead, har har. This album probably would've been higher but I haven't listened to it since they pulled it from Spotify, word to Vice.

49. Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In 
A swooning, swaying, self-consciously retro but still often disarmingly lovely singer-songwriter record, dressed up in slide guitar and sweeping strings, sometimes veering into country but just as often feeling like classic pop balladry. Rose's voice sometimes veers into that Zooey Deschanel kind of thing I can't stand, but when this record is good, I buy into the whole

50. Body/Head - Coming Apart
In the absence of new Sonic Youth music, the men have gone off and made music that pretty much sounds like the band's own classic indie rock guitar swing, which suits me fine with the Lee Ranaldo records and kinda bores me on Thurston's Chelsea Light Moving record. But Kim Gordon's new music with Body/Head harkens back to the band's early no wave era, while also hinting at the marital discord that led to the band's current indefinite hiatus on unnervingly stark tracks like "Last Mistress" that are as harrowing as anything she's done since "Shaking Hell."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I wrote a feature in this week's Baltimore City Paper about Ellis's new album, The Education Of Ellis. Also wrote The Short List, as usual.

My Top 100 Singles of 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

In 2013 as well as last year, I changed things up and wrote about my favorite singles of the year by genre: pop, rap, country, rock/alternative and R&B. But obviously, I still wanna put them all together and look at the year as a whole, too. There are some things here that weren't on the 'radio hits' list, most significantly Ylvis's "The Fox," which was purely a download/streaming hit that never really got played on the radio. But mainly at the bottom there are a lot of songs that didn't fit on the rap and R&B lists that beat out things that did fit on the country, rock and pop lists.

Here's the Spotify playlist of the top 100 (as opposed to the other playlist of favorite singles I'd been adding 10 songs to with every Monthly Report throughout the year):

1. Fantasia f/ Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott - "Without Me"
2. Ace Hood f/ Future and Rick Ross - "Bugatti"
3. Zedd f/ Foxes - "Clarity"
4. Tamar Braxton - "Love And War"
5. Paramore - "Still Into You"
6. Lady Gaga f/ R. Kelly - "Do What U Want"
7. Rich Homie Quan - "Type Of Way"
8. Robin Thicke f/ T.I. and Pharrell - "Blurred Lines"
9. Ylvis - "The Fox"
10. Yo Gotti f/ Young Jeezy and YG - "Act Right"
11. The Neighbourhood - "Sweater Weather"
12. Ariana Grande f/ Mac Miller - "The Way"
13. Rihanna f/ Future - "Loveeeeeee Song"
14. Kendrick Lamar f/ Jay-Z - "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe (Remix)"
15. Calvin Harris f/ Florence Welch - "Sweet Nothing"
16. J. Cole f/ Miguel - "Power Trip"
17. The Band Perry - "Better Dig Two"
18. Pearl Jam - "Mind Your Manners"
19. Daft Punk f/ Pharrell - "Get Lucky"
20. Bruno Mars - "Treasure"
21. Brad Paisley - "Southern Comfort Zone"
22. Brett Eldredge - "Don't Ya"
23. Muse - "Panic Station"
24. Rihanna f/ Mikky Ekko - "Stay"
25. Ciara - "Body Party"
26. K. Michelle - "V.S.O.P."
27. Demi Lovato - "Heart Attack"
28. Keith Urban f/ Miranda Lambert - "We Were Us"
29. Taylor Swith - "I Knew You Were Trouble"
30. 2 Chainz f/ Pharrell - "Feds Watching"
31. Toby Keith - "Drinks After Work"
32. Wale f/ Tiara Thomas - "Wale"
33. Tegan And Sara - "Closer"
34. Fall Out Boy - "My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light 'Em Up)"
35. Frank Turner - "Recovery"
36. Lil Wayne f/ Future and Drake - "Love Me"
37. Alicia Keys f/ Maxwell - "Fire We Make"
38. Katy Perry - "Roar"
39. Sage The Gemini - "Red Nose"
40. YG f/ Rich Homie Quan and Young Jeezy - "My N***a"
41. Mariah Carey f/ Miguel - "#Beautiful"
42. Sevyn Streeter - "I Like It"
43. Little Big Town - "Tornado"
44. Anna Kendrick - "Cups (When I'm Gone)"
45. Blake Shelton - "Mine Would Be You"
46. Kacey Musgraves - "Blowin' Smoke"
47. Kelly Rowland - "Kisses Down Low"
48. Mario f/ Nicki Minaj - "Somebody Else"
49. T-Rone - "Hello Love (F.U.)"
50. Zendaya - "Replay"
51. Young Jeezy f/ 2 Chainz - "R.I.P."
52. Meek Mill - "Levels"
53. Silversun Pickups - "The Pit"
54. Taylor Swift - "Red"
55. Britney Spears - "Work Bitch"
56. Ke$ha - "C'Mon"
57. Hunter Hayes - "I Want Crazy"
58. Future f/ Kelly Rowland - "Neva End (Remix)"
59. Gary Allan - "Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)"
60. The Band Perry - "DONE."
61. Kelly Clarkson f/ Vince Gill - "Don't Rush"
62. 2 Chainz - "Used 2"
63. Mack Wilds - "Own It"
64. Chris Brown - "Fine China"
65. Jay-Z f/ Rick Ross - "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit"
66. Kendrick Lamar f/ Drake - "Poetic Justice"
67. Wale f/ Juicy J and Nicki Minaj - "Clappers"
68. One Direction - "Best Song Ever"
69. Atlas Genius - "If So"
70. KoRn - "Never Never"
71. Devour The Day - "Good Man"
72. Kelly Clarkson - "Catch My Breath"
73. Nine Inch Nails - "Came Back Haunted"
74. Paramore - "Now"
75. Sevyn Streeter f/ Chris Brown - "It Won't Stop (Remix)"
76. Miguel f/ Kendrick Lamar - "How Many Drinks? (Remix)"
77. Juicy J f/ Young Jeezy and Big Sean - "Show Out"
78. Migos f/ Drake - "Versace (Remix)"
79. French Montana - "Ain't Worried About Nothin'"
80. Kanye West f/ Charlie Wilson - "Bound 2"
81. DJ Drama f/ Roscoe Dash, Tyga and Wale - "So Many Girls"
82. Raheem DeVaughn - "Love Connection"
83. Future - "Honest"
84. Nicki Minaj f/ Lil Wayne - "High School"
85. Watch The Duck - "Poppin' Off"
86. Iggy Azalea - "Work"
87. Doe B. f/ T.I. and Juicy J - "Let Me Find Out (Remix)"
88. Drake f/ Majid Jordan - "Hold On, We're Going Home"
89. Justin Timberlake f/ Jay-Z - "Suit & Tie"
90. Eric Benet - "News For You"
91. RaVaughn - "Best Friend"
92. Rico Love - "They Don't Know"
93. Chrisette Michele - "A Couple Of Forevers"
94. Charlie Wilson - "Turn Off The Lights"
95. Mindless Behavior - "Keep Her On The Low"
96. Keyshia Cole - "Trust And Believe"
97. Wale f/ Sam Dew - "LoveHate Thing"
98. India.Arie - "Just Do You"
99. Prince - "Breakfast Can Wait"
100. Destiny's Child - "Nuclear"

The 2013 Remix Report Card, Vol. 8

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Bounce It (Remix)" by Juicy J featuring Wiz Khalifa and Trey Songz
Given that the only new guest on this is Juicy's label boss, whose buzz is at an all-time low, this seemed like it would be a pretty perfunctory drop-one-new-verse-onto-the-original remix. But nope, it's a whole full-blown thing, with Wiz giving slightly more effort than usual, and Juicy and Trey doing new verses. Trey's rap flow is almost as annoying here as it was on the remix to Wale's "Bait," but Juicy drops a better verse than either of his on the original, working "abracadabra" and "hokey pokey" into filthy sex rhymes.
Best Verse: Juicy J
Overall Grade: B-

"Dis Ain't What You Want (Remix)" by Lil Durk featuring Rick Ross, French Montana and Meek Mill
I was walking down the street the other day, and a car passed by blasting a rap song that I only heard for 5 seconds, and in those 5 seconds, French Montana yelled "LEBRON JAMES LIKE TRINIDAD!" as if it was a hot punchline he was proud of. It's actually been kind of fascinating the last few years, to watch rappers basically degrade the art of wordplay to the point of mere word association, but that might be a new low. The song, like most Chicago drill songs, just sounded like a half-assed approximation of major label street rap by kids with no real talent to begin with, so it makes sense for it to just turn into another generic MMG posse cut.
Best Verse: Meek Mill
Overall Grade: D

"Do What U Want (Remix)" by Lady Gaga featuring Rick Ross and R. Kelly
It was weird to just expect a tacked-on Ross verse, and then be excited to hear R. singing the word "remix" over the intro and get my hopes up for a full-blown classic R. Kelly remix, and then hear basically the original song awkwardly sped up a few BPMs with a tacked-on Ross verse. Also, I was willing to give Gaga the benefit of the doubt that she wanted R. Kelly on this song because he sounded great on it and not because of irony or controversy, putting Rozay on here shortly after the whole "UOENO" thing seems like straight trolling.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: F

"Gas Pedal (Remix)" by Sage The Gemini featuring Justin Bieber and IamSu
I never liked this song as much as "Red Nose" so I'm not too mad about this one being ruined by Biebs doing some awkward Montell Jordan delivery over it. Sage and IamSu both try to capitalize on the moment of having such a big star on the song, though, kicking new verses that are both better than their shit on the original, although it's embarrassing with IamSu says "beliebers."
Best Verse: Sage The Gemini
Overall Grade: C

"My Story (L.A. Remix)" by R. Kelly featuring Too $hort and Nipsey Hussle
This is labelled as the 'L.A. remix' on the official R. Kelly SoundCloud page, even though Too $hort reps Oakland, and I'm stickin' to it because it's funny. I already covered the Chicago remix last month, and this one seems pointless by comparison, and even features the same decent new R. verse. But Too $hort's verse is pretty cool, because the story of his career is actually really long and interesting, and he talks his shit really well as always. But then Nipsey comes on and talks about his little career like he's done more than 1% as much as Kells or $hort and it's pretty anticlimactic.
Best Verse: Too $hort
Overall Grade: C+

"No Games (Remix)" by Rick Ross featuring Wale, Meek Mill and Future
This seemed like the kind of single that maybe could've been salvaged by a remix with some serious starpower, but Ross just threw his less famous labelmates on here and called it a day. Future lays down some new vocals trying something a little different, like he realized his hook on the original was subpar and wanted another swing at it, but the result is actually worse.
Best Verse: Meek Mill
Overall Grade: C

"Shabba (Remix)" by A$AP Ferg featuring Shabba Ranks, Busta Rhymes and Migos
Not a big fan of this song to begin with and there's a certain inevitability about finally putting Shabba on "Shabba," but he sounds great, the lineup is pretty well picked, Ferg improves on his flow from the original like with the "Work" remix, all came together pretty well.
Best Verse: Shabba Ranks
Overall Grade: B+

"Sh!t (Remix)" by Future featuring Drake and Juicy J or Pastor Troy, Young Jeezy and T.I. or Diddy and ScHoolboy Q
One of those annoying multi-part remixes released in installments, so where they probably could've fit 7 verses into one track, instead we have 14 minutes worth of a song I didn't really like that much to begin with. The ATL remix is the best overall, but the Diddy/ScHoolboy one works better than I thought it would (although Puff sounds almost "Dolly My Baby"-level awkward on the intro, and amusing contradicts himself with "Ain't nothing worse in life than a fuck nigga...even worse is a fuck bitch"). Juice has the best verse overall, though, and most of the attention lavished has been about Drake doing yet another passive aggressive obvious-but-no-names-mentioned-so-it's-"subliminal" Kendrick response, basically not being 'bout shit just like Future is talking about in the hook.
Best Verse: Juicy J
Overall Grade: B

"TKO (Remix)" by Justin Timberlake featuring J. Cole, Pusha T and A$AP Rocky
After a year of Justin hanging out with Jay-Z and Timbaland and seeming really old and disengaged from what's happening in R&B and rap right now, he finally did a track with some youngish and/or current rappers but it's a remix for his worst single ever. J. Cole manages to one-up Papoose and everybody for the worst "Control" response to date by waiting 3 months to spit some bullshit about hitting a girl for having "Control" as her ringtone.
Best Verse: A$AP Rocky
Overall Grade: F

"Tom Ford (Remix)" by Jay-Z featuring Pimp C
Aside from the obvious "Big Pimpin'" echoes of a Jay/Timbo/Pimp C track, this seems like an odd place to burn off an unreleased Pimp C remix since there's apparently a new posthumous album coming and how many of those could there be to spare? It's still cool to hear him rap "on" new songs, though, not as good as the "Show Out" remix but it's still fun.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This week the Baltimore City Paper published its annual Top Ten issue, and I wrote a lot of stuff both that appears in it, both top ten lists and otherwise:

- A feature on Blaqstarr, my third and by far most in-depth interview to date with one of the true geniuses of Baltimore club music.

- My regular BPM column on dance music, with news about Murder Mark (now Mighty Mark) and others.

- The Short List of concerts in Baltimore for the coming week.

- Lots and lots of top ten lists. I voted for the top ten albums of 2013 list, and wrote a blurb about the Elvis Costello & The Roots album, and also voted for the top ten local albums of 2013, and wrote a blurb about the Dungeonesse album. As we did last year, there were also a bunch of genre-specific lists, and once again I contributed a few: top ten hip-hop albums, top ten local hip-hop albums, top ten dance tracks and top ten Baltimore club tracks.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

This week on Complex Magazine, I wrote a track-by-track breakdown of the new Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip mixtape, The Abstract & The Dragon.

Also on Complex, Matt Barone and I co-wrote a list of 20 Songs That Changed Rap Forever.

The 20 Best Pop Radio Hits of 2013

Monday, December 16, 2013

Even though 'pop' has some connotations of being a genre of its own, it's more of a bastard Frankenstein than any other radio format. 10 years ago, there was still some sense that pop radio was the cream rising to the top, the biggest and best hits from other formats breaking through to a bigger audience. Now, it feels like pop radio has its own rap songs and R&B songs and rock songs and country songs and so on, that aren't necessarily (or sometimes in any way) better than the ones that appeal to those genres' core fans, but still take most of the spotlight as Top 40 radio eclipses all else. 

Still, I gotta say, pop radio was pretty damn good this year. In fact, it's the only one of these lists where I feel confident in saying that compared to the list I did last year, 2013 is absolutely superior. I did this list after the R&B, rock/alternative, country and rap lists to kind of exclude the few pop hits that had another core format they were also hits on, so this is kind of a list full of exclusions and holes in it (i.e. I'm not gonna put "Blurred Lines" on two lists, otherwise it'd be pretty high on this one). 

Here's the Spotify playlist

1. Zedd f/ Foxes - "Clarity"
#2 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
A couple years ago, the onslaught of EDM hits, usually matching bland mainstream DJs to big name singers with songs that rarely worked as great pop music or great dance music, seemed like the worst thing on American pop radio. Now, for better or worse, the saturation point has hit where we're not just getting festive party tracks in the EDM format but also dance ballads, and in a weird way it's like we're starting to at least approach the underrated emotional range of the disco era. 

2. Paramore - "Still Into You"
#8 Pop Songs, #24 Hot 100
Rock radio wasn't ready for the best rock single of the year, which poured sugar and all sorts of production bells and whistles over a "My Sharona" riff for the giddiest celebration of longterm monogamy since Beyonce's "Countdown." After alt-rock stations tepidly received Paramore's lead single "Now" and completely ignored the follow-up, it took "Still Into You" 6 or 7 months to climb the charts, beating out “The Only Exception” to become the band’s biggest pop radio hit (although not as big as Hayley Williams’s depressingly phoned-in hook on B.o.B’s “Airplanes," which is echoed on her lame new Zedd collaboration "Stay The Night"). Even a lyric like "some things just make sense and one of those is you and I," which initially sounded clunky and grammatically suspect, has begun to hit me hard: two people equaling one thing. 

3. Lady Gaga f/ R. Kelly - "Do What U Want"
#14 Pop Songs, #13 Hot 100
For all of Gaga's bluster about dragging modern art reference points into pop music, ARTPOP's biggest triumph just took Top 40 listeners back a decade or so to a time when R. Kelly's wonderful voice was a frequent and wonderful presence. The way it feels like this big catchy pop hit about sex, and just under the surface has a pretty articulate message about female agency and body image, just made the whole thing feel like such a perfectly assembled song that, for the first time in a while, made Gaga seem like some kind of genius again. 

4. Ariana Grande f/ Mac Miller - "The Way"
#12 Pop Songs, #9 Hot 100
There's something very weird and surreal about one of the many 2013 hits to use a sample or interpolation to remind people of the '90s coming from a couple kids who were born in the '90s, and were only 4-5 years old when "Still Not A Player" blew up. But Harmony "H-Money" Samuels, who produced a couple of my favorite R&B singles of the year by Fantasia and Sevyn Streeter, continued his domination of 2013 by helping the latest kids' TV starlet, Nickelodeon's Ariana Grande, cross over to Top 40 radio. Again, it's a little depressing that the primary artists on pretty much every R&B-leaning hit on pop radio this year was a white person (Thicke, Timberlake, Gaga), but in Grande we at least got a promising new star who can really sing and seems poised for an urban radio breakthrough as well (hilariously, my local R&B station plays "The Way" with the Mac Miller verse edited out, the only time they've ever taken a rapper out of a song). 

5. Calvin Harris f/ Florence Welch - "Sweet Nothing"
#5 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
Like "Clarity," this is an EDM ballad that kind of justifies the whole enterprise, just a lovely, dramatic song that's compact and perfect from the first second to the last. I resisted Welch's voice at first, but after "Shake It Out" and "Sweet Nothing" won me over, I've even kinda gone back and begun to enjoy "Dog Days Are Over." 

6. Daft Punk f/ Pharrell - "Get Lucky"
#2 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
After "Around The World" and "One More Time" became good-sized pop hits without big name pop star guests, it seemed almost like a cop out for Daft Punk to resist every current trend in EDM except famous vocalists, especially when they mostly reached to other critically adored guys who peaked creatively in 2001 like Pharrell and Julian Casablancas. But "Get Lucky" just transcends any misgivings I could have about what it or its success represents. It's just a great song. 

7. Bruno Mars - "Treasure"
#5 Pop Songs, #5 Hot 100
Nostalgic disco funk was in the air well before "Get Lucky" hit, as evidenced by the fact that Bruno Mars already had a great similar track waiting in the wings on his late 2012 album Unorthodox Jukebox, ready to ride that wave all summer. 

8. Rihanna f/ Mikky Ekko - "Stay"
#1 Pop Songs, #3 Hot 100
I wrote a Radio Hits One column a couple years ago, after Adele's "Someone Like You" became the first blockbuster ballad in years, and wondered whether it was even possible for it to set a trend of piano ballads on pop radio, given that the biggest artists, like Rihanna, seemed so incapable of pulling them off (ugh, remember "Unfaithful"?). So I was both pleased and chagrined that Rihanna ended up with one of the biggest ballad hits of 2013 (bested only by "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars, which sounded a little too mathematically calibrated to follow in the footsteps of "Someone Like You"). She sounded a little silly singing some of Mikky Ekko's ridiculous anglophile lyrics, but the actual vocal performance was fantastic, the whole thing is just kind of beautiful. 

9. Demi Lovato - "Heart Attack"
#4 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
The power pop on her first two albums remains my favorite stuff Demi Lovato has done, but she didn't actually become a Top 40 presence until well after she became famous, with last year's awesome sleeper hit "Give Your Heart A Break." So I was happy to see her build on that success in 2013 with a song like "Heart Attack" that was hooky and bombastic but also had a kind of nervous intensity that really suits her voice well, the frantic 32nd note hi-hats scurrying underneath that fraught chorus. 

10. Taylor Swift - "I Knew You Were Trouble"
#1 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
"I Knew You Were Trouble" pulled some of the same tricks as "Heart Attack" to great effect, and gradually won me over in a T-Swift pop radio singles campaign in which it was bookended by two other Max Martin productions that I hated with a passion ("We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "22"). 

11. Tegan And Sara - "Closer"
#20 Pop Songs, #90 Hot 100
Like Paramore's "Still Into You," Tegan And Sara started off 2013 with a great alternative single that ended up taking half the year to finally find its largest audience on pop radio. In the case of "Closer," a YouTube of Taylor Swift bringing Tegan And Sara onstage to perform the song with her was probably the leg up the song needed to cross over, but it really shouldn't have needed it, given that the song was produced by Greg Kurstin, who just did huge hits for Pink and Kelly Clarkson. And really "Closer" just felt huge, even if it was only a minor hit in the end. 

12. Katy Perry – “Roar”
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
The only thing that saved "Roar" from feeling completely anti-climactic was that it ended up being compared more to Gaga's hugely disappointing lead single "Applause," rather than held up to the bar of "California Girls" and "Teenage Dream." And in a way, it's nice to see Katy Perry's fairly undeserved superstardom already starting to taper off -- she can keep doing goofy, pleasant songs like "Roar" if they'r not going to be too oppressively huge. 

13. Anna Kendrick – “Cups (When I'm Gone)”
#8 Pop Songs, #6 Hot 100
Probably the single strangest, most circuitous journey to pop radio in a long time, "When I'm Gone" began as a Carter Family song in the 1930s, until a modern cover and then a YouTube video and then a major motion picture placed an 77-second version by an actress with no professional recording experience onto the charts. The re-recorded single, which balloons the track out to an indulgent 127 seconds, isn't quite as charming as the first Anna Kendrick version from the Pitch Perfect soundtrack, but it was still an odd, charming thing to encounter on the radio. 

14. Zendaya - "Replay"
#25 Pop Songs, #61 Hot 100
With Miley and Demi and Selena dominating pop radio this year, Disney Channel starlets seem to be making hits outside of Radio Disney with greater ease than ever before. But Zendaya, a supporting player from the recently canceled "Shake It Up," is still on the periphery with a ridiculously good song that feels like it still needs to break through. Produced by Mick Schultz, who helmed pretty much every track on Jeremih's two major label albums, gives this his brand of R&B sheen that would sound equally good on pop and urban radio, but like Ariana Grande, Zendaya seems more destined for Top 40 just by virtue of how she became famous in the first place. 

15. Britney Spears – “Work Bitch”
#14 Pop Songs, #12 Hot 100
For almost 15 years, I've been terrorized by that goofy duck voice, on awful songs and good songs that could've been done more justice by better vocalists. But now that Britney seems to be finally fading from the forefront, doing a residency in Vegas and releasing what seems destined to be the least successful album of her career, I'm not so annoyed by her ubiquity anymore. And "Work Bitch" is just really ridiculous and funny and bizarre. 

16. Ke$ha – “C’Mon”
#9 Pop Songs, #27 Hot 100
Ke$ha's reign of terror was much shorter than Britney's, but also seems to be showing signs of drawing to a close already, with "C'Mon" being her first solo single to miss the top 10 after several number ones. And in her case, that's a real shame, if only because "C'Mon" is the first thing of hers that I've really loved, feeling warm and euphoric and not too desperately 'hip hop' in a year when Miley made all of Ke$ha's bullshit seem kind of harmless by comparison. 

17. Kelly Clarkson – “Catch My Breath”
#13 Pop Songs, #19 Hot 100
Kelly Clarkson is kind of incapable of doing any wrong in my eyes -- she can do dance pop hits like this, or country songs, or a Christmas album, or all of the above as she did this year, and I enjoy it all. This one was kind of initially underwhelming, but over the months of adult contemporary airplay it really won me over, has a nice appropriate bittersweet vibe for a single from a "greatest hits" compilation. 

18. One Direction – “Best Song Ever”
#16 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
After their big debut radio smash "What Makes You Beautiful" (my #1 on this list last year), One Direction have remained a major force in American pop by sheer virtue of their fanbase rushing to iTunes with every new release, while radio has cooled on them significantly with every subsequent single. But "Best Song Ever" at least did a good job of capturing their goofy, puppy dog power pop appeal with a song that invoked The Who just enough to both earn Pete Townshend's respect and to scare lawsuit-wary One Direction fans into harrassing Pete on Twitter.

19. Emile Sande – “Next To Me”
#17 Pop Songs, #25 Hot 100
Emile Sande is a U.K. phenomenon whose U.S. presence lags even further behind her homeland stardom than that of One Direction. In 2013, as her album enjoyed a second year of giant sales in England, its singles slowly, cautiously crept onto American radio, and where I was expecting something stuffy and dull, her voice and her hooks on "Next To Me" and "My Kind of Love" actually impressed me. I might feel differently if she was huge over here too, though. 

20. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis f/ Wanz – “Thrift Shop”
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Macklemore is such a deserving critical pariah that I will probably get shit from some of my peers just for sneaking this in at the bottom of the list. But out of all the songs in Macklemore's depressing hit parade, "Thrift Shop" is the one that always seemed to function best as a fun radio song, troubling as some of its subtext was. If this was his only hit and the album fell short of going gold, I wouldn't hate on dude's success. 

Bonus bile: 
The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2013
1. Miley Cyrus - "We Can't Stop"
2. Justin Timberlake - "Mirrors"
3. Icona Pop f/ Charli XCX – “I Love It”
4. Florida Georgia Line f/ Nelly – “Cruise (Remix)”
5. Lana Del Rey and Cedric Gergais – “Summertime Sadness”
6. Will.i.am & Britney Spears – “Scream & Shout”
7. Zedd f/ Hayley Williams - "Stay The Night"
8. Miley Cyrus - "Wrecking Ball"
9. Lady Gaga - "Applause"
10. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis f/ Ray Dalton – “Can’t Hold Us”