Monthly Report: September 2015 Singles

1. Twenty One Pilots - "Tear In My Heart"
Mainstream alternative rock rarely makes adults shake their fists and go "kids these days" the way it once did, even to the degree that, say, My Chemical Romance inspired that kind of reaction a decade ago. Twenty One Pilots have the potential to be that kind of band, though -- their latest album was a surprise #1 on Billboard (after their previous album peaked at #48), and they maim most of their songs with rapping that's far worse than anything you've ever heard on a Linkin Park song (an A$AP Rocky duet was their big coming-out-party at this year's VMA's). "Tear In My Heart" is one of the few songs of theirs that I've heard that has no rapping, and it's a pretty fun little toy piano Ben Folds Five stomper with an abrupt tempo change for a catchy bridge, and a huge sky-opening-up EDM festival synth line on the chorus. But even watching the video brings up all sorts of "kids these days" feelings, with the singer (sometimes rapper) guy wearing weird makeup on his neck and arms that has a pretentious explanation. Here's the Spotify playlist of favorite 2015 singles that I add to every month.

2. Cam - "Burning House"
I come to contemporary mainstream country from a pop perspective, so I'm neutral about the idea of Top 40 interlopers making moves in Nashville. Sometimes it's really bad -- The Band Perry's new single produced by RedOne is a colossal disappointment. But sometimes it's really good -- "Burning House" is produced by Jeff Bhasker (of many later Kanye records and fun.'s "We Are Young"), and the biggest credit on Cam's songwriting resume is one of the few songs I found tolerable on Miley Cyrus's Bangerz. I wish I knew more about the roots of country to figure out why occasionally country ballads, even really mainstream ones like Blake Shelton's "Mine Would Be You," have verses in 7/8, it's interesting to hear unusual time signatures in that context.

3. Jill Scott - "Fool's Gold"
My profile of D.K. The Punisher, the Baltimore producer who did the beat for "Fool's Gold," was in this week's City Paper. It was really cool to find out someone from around here had a hand in this record, which is awesome and kind of a different sound for Jill Scott, and get the story behind how it came together.

4. Jazmine Sullivan - "Let It Burn"
Reality Show is one of the best R&B albums of the year, but it hasn't had any big radio hits like her first two albums, and of the great songs on the album I didn't really expect this one to creep up and be a moderate sleeper hit. But it does sound pretty great on the radio, glad it's gotten out there.

5. Panic! At The Disco - "Hallelujah"
I've always regarded PATD as Fall Out Boy's overly similar (but far less interesting) sidekicks, and the last time I heard from them, they took it to ridiculous extremes with a song that sounded almost exactly like "My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light 'Em Up)." So this is a pleasant surprise, easily one of their best singles to date, with a big memorable hook over some drums and horns lifted from an old Chicago song.

6. Leona Lewis - "Thunder"
She was always bigger at home than in the U.S., but Leona Lewis isn't even successful in the U.K. anymore, I like this record, and the "Latch" knockoff song on her new album, she really has a lane and she excels at it, it's a shame she's so transatlantically irrelevant.

7. Rico Richie - "Poppin'"
This song already peaked without ever really getting that big, and I kinda feel bad for this Rico Richie dude. He wrote a smash that every established rapper wished they wrote, which meant that a ton of more established artists did remixes of it and grabbed some of its momentum for themselves, but it never got a really big co-sign. Maybe it would've done better if Rico Richie leased it to someone who needed a single like Ron Browz gave "Pop Champagne" to Jim Jones or something.

8. Rico Love - "Happy Birthday"
Turn The Lights On is a really great and fairly traditional and downtempo R&B record, and this song is far from the best one on it, but stands out as a single because it's so different from the others. Specifically, it sounds eerily like an early N.E.R.D. song, which is why it struck me as funny that even the video looks like a N.E.R.D. video. And that's besides Rico rapping like Ma$e like he does on every song. Maybe now that there's no money to be made on the original "Happy Birthday," this one will catch on.

9. Puff Daddy & The Family f/ Pharrell Williams - "Finna Get Loose"
Speaking of Neptunes and Bad Boy throwbacks, this song is just weird. Sean Combs is back to his old '90s name and hyping up No Way Out II, a sequel to his 1997 blockbuster, but the lead single is a Pharrell collaboration that reminds me of a circa 2003 Diddy/Neptunes record like "Show Me Your Soul" or something. I don't know if this record would be better per se if Puff shelled out money for a good ghostwriter, but it's entertaining just how half-assed the verses are, they practically sound like reference tracks, just grunting in a basic flow.

10. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis f/ Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe D, and Grandmaster Caz - "Downtown"
"Thrift Shop" was a pretty stupid song and this feels like the "Gentleman" to its "Gangnam Style," hollowly attempted to replicate a phenomenon. And while it feels kind of trite and obvious to say a Macklemore song would be better without Macklemore on it, I really just can't stop thinking it: his verses are these stupid barely rhyming couplets about mopeds, but if you removed them, you'd have a good 3-minute barrage of "Uptown Funk"-style retro hooks. The three rap legends that show up to chant a few lines are a divisive choice, but what I really like about the song is mostly Eric Nally, previously known as the frontman of a band called Foxy Shazam that had a couple rock radio hits maybe 3 years ago. Macklemore's hits have all been carried by incongruous hooks by non-famous singers, but I enjoy that huge chunks of his big comeback single are dominated by this creepy mustachioed Freddie Mercury wannabe shrieking a schmaltzy showtune.

Worst Single of the Month: R. City f/ Adam Levine - "Locked Away"
These guys have been kicking around the industry, sometimes under the name Rock City or Planet VI, for the last 7 or 8 years -- they had one unpopular single for an album that was going to come out on Akon's label (they did release a mixtape called Put The Fuckin' Album Out -- it didn't work). The last few years, they've been increasingly successful as songwriters, mostly on really obnoxious songs like Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop," and were responsible for the fake Migos ad libs on Usher's "I Don't Mind" and the fake Future ad libs on Ciara's "I Bet." So I've been rooting against these hacks forever, and they finally got a big enough star to appear on one of their songs that they couldn't fail. I'm disgusted.
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