Like The Ravyns once sang, I was raised on the radio. But I haven't been a regular listener for many years. By missing the radio for so long I feel like I've been missing an important piece of the present. So every month I download the Top 20 songs from the latest Billboard Hot 100, and grade them, A.V. Club style. This week I'm looking at (the already out-of-date) January 5, 2008 chart.
20. Kanye West, "Stronger"
Jesus, this song has hung around forever. Back when I first downloaded it, iTunes only charged me 10 cents. And they tossed in a loaf of bread and a ticket to the picture show. They sure don't make 'em like Old Man iTunes anymore. Grade: B- (same as before)
19. Alicia Keys, "Like You'll Never See Me Again"
Following up "No One," the bizarro first single from her latest album As I Am, Alicia Keys returns to the tried and true formula of discernable melodies and tuneful vocals with the straightforward slow burner "Like You'll Never See Me Again." It's definitely a more listenable song, though somehow less memorable. Keys is back to sounding like a balanced and more artistically respectable Mariah Carey on this conventional R&B; ballad. I was just starting to prefer the crazy Alicia Keys. Grade: B-
18. Natasha Bedingfield Featuring Sean Kingston, "Love Like This"
I used to think nondescript British R&B; singer Natasha Bedingfield was the new Taylor Dayne, but she's actually the new Amy Grant. Thanks to my exceedingly trustworthy lil' Web buddy Wikipedia, I just learned that Bedingfield is a former member of a Christian dance group called The DNA Algorithm. (Is there a less enticing combination of words than "Christian dance group"?) In this context, "Love Like This" suddenly reveals itself† as a love song to one Jesus H. Christ. "You're the one that knows me, love it when you hold me, never find a love like this," she sings in the chorus, perhaps realizing for the first time why there's only one set of footprints in the sand. "All the guys tried to take me, you're the one who saved me, I feel like I owe you my life." Yes, it's a pretty creepy song when you listen to it this way, but it's nothing compared to Bedingfield's recent U.K. hit "I Wanna Have Your Babies." Grade: C
17. Plies Featuring Akon, "Hypnotized"
I downloaded the "dirty" version of "Hypnotized" by Plies and adolescent-humping enthusiast Akon, and I can't for the life of me figure out what the radio-friendly "clean" version might sound like. "Hypnotized" is just so brazenly filthy—even if you cut every "pussy," "titties," and "cheeks spread wide open," you still have a song that's obviously about getting a raging hard-on. Not to sound like an old man prude, but it seems really weird to me that a song like this is on the radio. I'd hate to be 13—a time when raging hard-ons come and go like city buses—and hear this in the car with my mom sitting next to me. I used to listen to 2 Live Crew on headphones, desperately afraid of getting caught, alone in my bedroom. If "Hypnotized" is pop radio material, what kind of underground filth are kids secretly listening to these days? Live donkey fucking? Stick T-Pain in there and you got a hit! Grade: B-
16. Chris Brown, "With You"
Production duo The Stargate produced Chris Brown's "With You," and it sounds a lot like the group's previous hit job for Beyonce, "Irreplaceable." Expect it's not nearly as good. The trend of putting acoustic guitars in R&B; ballads is now officially boring. Grade: C-
15. Sean Kingston, "Take You There"
Where you been, Sean Kingston? How I've missed your lite reggae pop stylings here in the Top 20! In "Take You There," the young Mr. Kingston tells his shorty that he can either take her to the tropics for Pina Coladas—though since he's only 17 he'd at least need a fake ID to procure alcohol, if not an accommodating older brother—or to the ghetto where he grew up. "Take You There" is sort of a stealth gangsta song hiding inside a devotional love ballad, with Kingston shoring up his street cred by casually mentioning his familiarity with "bad men" in his old 'hood. The song touches on the uncomfortable dichotomy that exists in Jamaica between the luxurious resorts that draw American tourists and the slums you have to drive through to get there from the airport.† Of course, the somewhat danceable "Take You There" surely is already getting regular airplay at said resorts between "Who Let The Dogs Out?" and "Mr. Boombastic." Clearly the shorty decided to go with the beach. Grade: B-
14. Kanye West Featuring T-Pain, "Good Life"
You know what? The Snakes On A Plane joke is kind of funny now. Other than that—apologies to Noel Murray—I'm still pretty "meh" on this one. Grade: C+. (down from B-)
13. Baby Bash Featuring T-Pain, "Cyclone"
And the award for best song featuring T-Pain in this week's Top 20—there's four of them, which was par for the course for pop charts in 2007—is "Cyclone," in a narrow victory over Chris Brown's "Kiss Kiss." When does T-Pain get to release his own single again? The man's become the Philip Baker Hall of rappers. Grade: B (down from B+)
12. Wyclef Jean Featuring Akon, Lil Wayne & Niia, "Sweetest Girl"
Listen up kids: Before Sean Kingston there was Wyclef Jean, a pioneer who realized the commercial potential of combining watered-down reggae with watered-down hip-hop back when only stoners had Bob Marley posters on their walls. But "Sweetest Girl" isn't all lightly strummed guitars and exaggerated Jamaican accents. It's a bona-fide cautionary tale about a high school track star who ends up as a dollar-chasing ho. That's right, youngsters: Watch out, or you too might become Fergie. Grade: C+
11. Soulja Boy, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)"
I shirked my pop song grading responsibilities the first two times I was confronted with Soulja Boy, giving the song an "incomplete" like a coward. The problem with "Crank That" is it can't be appreciated while sitting behind a computer on a deadline. You have to be in the right environment. Finally, over the Christmas break, I found the right environment: The 10th Frame bowling alley in my hometown of Appleton, WI I was there with my girlfriend's family, and I was bowling out of my freaking mind. (I ended up with my best score ever, which I'm not going to share.) As I was in the midst of throwing four strikes in a row—yeah, you read that right—"Crank That" came on. All of a sudden, two young-ish girls in the lane next to us stopped bowling and started grinding on each other like monkeys in heat. "OK," my inner music critic said, "this is obviously a brilliant piece of pop music." So, Mr. Soulja Boy, please accept my belated grade: A
10. Rihanna Featuring Ne-Yo, "Hate That I Love You"
I like this song but come on! Another folky R&B; ballad? This is why the world needs Soulja Boy to have a second hit. Grade: B. (same as last time)
9. Sara Bareilles, "Love Song"
The safest bet in pop music is a piano-playing female singer-songwriter whose music can be safely slotted into car commercials and/or nighttime soap operas. So the success of Sara Bareilles and her first single "Love Song" was practically pre-ordained. Which is not to say that her success is undeserved: "Love Song" has a nice Carole King vibe, with a strong and forceful hook and none of that Vanessa Carlton-style conservatory school noodling. And I could totally picture Katherine Heigl doing something sassy on Grey's Anatomy whenever I hear it. Grade: B
8. Jordin Sparks, "Tattoo"
Once upon a time, the only people who had tattoos were convicts, bikers, sailors, and the old ladies of convicts, bikers, and sailors. Tattoos were a symptom of, not an attempt at, bad-asssery. Today, Mitt Romney would get a tattoo on his chest of Brigham Young dry-humping Joseph Smith if it would secure the 18-to-24 demographic. In short, tattoos have become just another empty emblem for hip young "individualism." Which brings us to Jordin Sparks, quite possibly the dorkiest American Idol winner yet. Sparks had trouble out bad-assing Pat Benatar when she attempted to cover "Heartbreaker" last season. Now the plucky 18-year-old pro-lifer is singing about the memory of an old flame being on her heart like a tattoo, demonstrating just how little separates the Mastodon fan with a bloody ax on his arm and the Carrie Underwood fan with the ying-yang symbol on her lower back. Still, "Tattoo" was disappointing because I secretly hoped it was a cover of the classic Who song. Grade: C
7. Colbie Caillat, "Bubbly"
The Grammys need to hand Colbie Caillat a Best New Artist award already so she can quietly join the "Overly Precious Female Singer-Songwriter Relocation Program" and live out the rest of her days with Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, and Meredith Brooks in a halfway house in a undisclosed location somewhere in the American Southwest, never to be heard from again. "Bubbly" is the kind of blandly catchy folk-pop song often described as "refreshing" by people who don't like hip-hop-heavy sound of modern pop music. But the lyrics to "Bubbly" are at least as laughably dumb as any Fergie song. "Cause every time I see your bubbly face, I get the tinglies in a silly place." A "silly" place? You mean your vagina, right? OK, just checking. Grade: D (down from C+)
6. Finger Eleven, "Paralyzer"
The return of Canadian disco-butt-rock! Yes! Like fellow funky-rockin' Canucks Loverboy, Finger Eleven has no problem shamelessly shaking their leather-clad booties for a pop hit. "Paralyzer" sounds like a beefed-up version of Rilo Kiley's sleazy and underrated 2007 single "The Moneymaker"—meaning it also sounds like a beefed-up version of The Cars "Moving In Stereo"—though Finger Eleven is clearly more at home on the stripper pole than Jenny Lewis. Grade: B+
5. Fergie, "Clumsy"
There's a special freedom that comes with being the absolute worst artist in pop music today. There's simply nowhere to go but up. On "Clumsy," the fifth (!) hit single from Fergie's debut solo record The Dutchess, she scores with her best radio song yet. "Clumsy" is a delightfully fluffy ode to Fergie's favorite subject: Fergie's incredible sluttiness. Buoyed by a sample from Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It," "Clumsy" is yet another triumph for will.i.am, the unparalleled genius of contemporary bubblegum hip-hop/R&B.; The bargain-store keyboards that bounce under Fergie's orgasmic cooing are simple but undeniably effective at tearing down the defenses of listeners still scarred by the never-ending chart success of† "Big Girls Don't Cry." Grade: B+
4. Chris Brown Featuring T-Pain, "Kiss Kiss"
Exhibit Q in the case against pop chart stagnation: In the two months since I last reviewed Chris Brown's decent but hardly earth-shaking "Kiss Kiss" it has moved down exactly two slots, from No. 2 to No. 4. Pop music is supposed to celebrate the moment, reveling in the novelty of the now, but the Top 20 in 2007 changed as much as the playlist at the local oldies station. "Kiss Kiss" feels as tired as "This Diamond Ring." Grade: B (same as last time)
3. Timbaland Featuring OneRepublic, "Apologize"
Even if you don't listen to pop radio—or write columns where you download the most recent Top 20 and wrack your brain for semi-intelligent opinions on songs that make jailbait girls grind on each other in front of the future in-laws—you probably have heard "Apologize" by deadly dull Colorado soft-rock band OneRepublic. I've heard it at the movie theater, at Walgreens, at the mall, in the shower, in my nightmares, everywhere. It is the Freddy Krueger of unlikely Timbaland collaborations. It's one of those songs, like "Bubbly," that's just inoffensive enough to crossover into multiple formats and demographic groups, making it enduringly popular but not particularly beloved. Say what you will about "Crank That", but I'll take an apocalyptically annoying club banger over this tripe any day. Grade: D+ (down from C+)
2. Alicia Keys, "No One"
I don't know if I actually like "No One" or if I admire Alicia Keys for having a hit with such a strangely unappealing song that on any other planet would be completely lacking in commercial appeal. It's really the punk rock single of the year; it's not fun to listen to at all, and yet its' popularity ensures that listeners are confronted with it three or four times a day. (Which means it's actually better at irritating people than punk rock ever was.) "No One" is courageously, gratingly brilliant, and I wouldn't mind never hearing it again. Grade: B+ (up from B)
1. Flo Rida Featuring T-Pain, "Low"
From the cheap ringtone synths to the T-Pain cameo, Flo Rida's "Low" is an utterly typical 2007 pop hit. And, depressingly, it may point the way forward for 2008. Just last week Flo Rida sold 470,000 downloads of "Low" on iTunes, a new record. (The old record was 294,000 for Fergie's "Fergielicious.") "Low" is an OK song, but unless there's also a YouTube-aided dance craze I don't know about it doesn't feel like a real blockbuster. Still, my gut tells me it will be at or near No. 1 when I check back last month. This ain't the pop charts, this is Groundhog Day. Grade: B-