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's Hot 100, and grade them, A.V. Club style. This week I'm looking at (the already out-of-date) November 3, 2007 chart.
(Regular readers will notice that about half the songs in this month's column were written about last month. It might seem redundant, but it also mirrors how we listen to the radio: you hear songs for months and months, and your opinions change with the repetition. If I had anything more to say about a song this month I said it. If I didn't, I didn't. Cool? Let's pop!)
20. Daughtry, "All Over You"
For better or worse, Pearl Jam's Ten is still a huge influence on America's best-selling rock bands, a fact confirmed once again when the latest record by current growl-master general Nickelback crossed the six-million sold mark (which is like 20 million in the age of downloads). Daughtry is another nu-grunge act, but it wants to be Candlebox—a knock-off of a knock-off that's poppier and wussier than the Ten wannabes, and more tolerable in small doses. (Unlike Chad Kroeger, former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry can actually sing.) The woman-done-me-wrong ballad "All Over You" encapsulates Daughtry's appeal—it's Coldplay for guys in white backward hats. Grade: B.
19. Maroon 5, "Wake Up Call"
You might think you hate Maroon 5, but you really just hate singer Adam Levine, a self-described "male slut" whose breath probably smells like Axe body spray. In "Wake Up Call" (or any Maroon 5 song, really) Levine strikes a classic pop stud pose: his words express indignation over a romantic betrayal—Levine actually shoots the "other man in my bed" in the chorus—but his delivery drips with pure sleaze. His ultimate goal isn't some high-falutin' artistic catharsis over lost love but getting in your pants, ladies. It's an effective songwriting device in more ways than one, I'm sure. Grade: B.
18. Keyshia Cole Featuring Missy Elliott & Lil' Kim, "Let It Go"
It's no surprise that several entries in this week's Top 20 tackle one of the great pop song subjects, infidelity. While most songs on the chart are sung from the point of view of the cheated—Daughtry was built up and tore down like an abandoned house a few songs ago, but he's doing fine now, thanks—Cole tries to steer her friend out of a bad relationship in "Let It Go." Which makes me feel bad about cheating on Cole whenever I hear this song—you don't invite Missy Elliott to appear on your record if you don't want her to walk away with listeners, though. Missy's "Daaaaamn, that's hot" is the only thing that really sticks here. Grade: B-. (Same as last month)
17. Nickelback, "Rock Star"
When I wrote about "Rock Star" last month I wondered why bands write songs warning people about how tough the rock life is—are they trying to help us or prevent future competition? Upon further review, "Rock Star" is a thoroughly grunge-ian cautionary tale about the emptiness of major label success, except Kroeger obviously enjoys the trappings of stardom more than Eddie Vedder ever did and isn't above sharing some tantalizing details about the Playboy bunnies he's banging and the drug dealer on speed dial he may or may not be calling 24/7. Working class rock stars like Kroeger have to walk a thin line between glamorizing behind-the-music hedonism and paying lip service to regular ol' down-to-earth Joe Sixpack values, and with "Rock Star" he keeps his balance. But I still hate it when he sings, "I'm gonna dress my ass with the latest fashion." Grade: C+ (Up from C-)
16. matchbox twenty, "How Far We've Come"
As I noted last month, "How Far We've Come" sounds a lot like Bruce Springsteen—the opening drums echo "Light Of Day," and the piano-based riff could be pilfered from Side 3 of The River. The lyrics are also open to Springsteen-style misinterpretation—"I believe the world's is burning to the ground/oh well, I guess we're going to find out" is natural born propaganda for irony-deficient Republicans just as surely as "Born In The U.S.A." was. Grade: B+. (Up from B)
15. Pink, "Who Knew"
The spunky Pink of old makes a brief guest star appearance in this pale "Since U Been Gone" re-write: "If someone said three years from now, you'd be long gone/I'd stand up and punch them out, because they're all wrong," she sings. Threat of violence aside, I still think "Who Knew" is a by-the-numbers break-up song, right down to the "emotional" rise in Pink's voice in the string-soaked climax. I'll say it again: Pink should be recording fake punk songs, not fake Kelly Clarkson numbers. Grade: C. (Same as last month)
14. 50 Cent Featuring Justin Timberlake & Timbaland, "Ayo Technology"
If 50 Cent wasn't so lazy in the studio, I'd feel bad ripping "Ayo Technology," maybe his worst single yet. The Kanye sales square-off really diminished him—he has become Encore-era Eminem, relying solely on centrifugal force from his past success to sell records. But at least "Mosh" sounded alive—"Ayo Technology" is an aural dirt nap. Grade: D. (Same as last month)
13. Britney Spears, "Gimme More"
Chuck Klosterman has the definitive line on Britney Spears: "Either Britney Spears is the least self-aware person I've ever met, or she's way, way savvier than any of us realize." Based on Spears' latest hit single (and future lap dance classic) "Gimme More," I lean toward the former—only a person completely lacking in self-awareness could marry Kevin Federline, spend a year eating Funions and Cheetos in front of paparazzi, teach her toddler how to drive stick-shift, divorce Kevin Federline, go crazy, shave her head, go to rehab, leave rehab, go back to rehab, and then record a song that sounds exactly like what she did back before any of that stuff happened. In this case, Britney's lack of interest in introspection is a plus—welcome back, you crazy lil' Mouseketeer! Grade: B+.
12. Fergie, "Big Girls Don't Cry"
Maybe not, but I might if I have to write about this song again next month. Grade: D. (Down from D+)
11. J. Holiday, "Bed"
Last month a commenter told me to get the stick out of my ass because "Bed"—which I gave a C—is "at the very least an extraordinary song." After undergoing emergency stick-removal surgery two weeks ago "Bed" still sounds like a tediously repetitive plea by J. Holiday for his woman to allow his penis to soothe her after-work blues. Let's split the difference, anonymous commenter: I think this song sucks, but every generation needs its "Freak Me" and "Bed" might as well do. (Though, c'mon, "Freak Me" is a lot better and unintentionally funnier, right?) Grade: C. (Same as last month)
10. Timbaland Featuring Keri Hilson, "The Way I Are"
Don't have much to add on this one—it still sounds like a solid if unspectacular Timbaland song, one I enjoy but probably won't remember once it finally slips out of the Top 20. It's like a gift from the music Gods coming after Fergie and J. Holiday, but Timbaland should be swimming in deeper waters. Grade: B. (Up from B-)
9. Rihanna Featuring Ne-Yo, "Hate That I Love You"
I don't get Rihanna. "Umbrella" was a monster hit that did nothing for me, and the supposedly sexy video doesn't hold a candle to Beyonce on laundry day. While I like "Hate That I Love You" I give most of the credit to Ne-Yo, a.k.a. the new Tony Rich. Ne-Yo carries the thin-voiced Rihanna during this nice pseudo-folky jam—yep, there's actually an acoustic guitar on this track, one of two cameos in the Top 10 by the antiquated, old-timey stringed instrument. Grade: B.
8. Kanye West Featuring T-Pain, "Good Life"
You know who I get? T-Pain. I'm on record as a fan of that vocodin' S.O.B., and while I'm bummed that "Bartender" didn't hang around the Top 20 this month the silver lining is that Pain guests on no less than three songs in the Top 10 this week. Like Graduation's other hit "Stronger," "Good Life" qualifies as a strong Kanye single if you lower your expectations from the first two albums. (Newsflash: Kanye is still rich. And full of himself. And touching the sky for his mama. Etc.) You can't expect "Gold Digger" and "Jesus Walks" every time, but if a lame Snakes On A Plane sex joke is the best Graduation has to offer I'm not in any rush to buy it. But any friend of T-Pain is a fan of mine. Grade: B-.
7. Baby Bash Featuring T-Pain, "Cyclone"
Every Top 20 chart needs at least one good cruising song. Last month it was "Shawty" by Plies and—guess who?—T-Pain. This month it's "Cyclone" by Baby Bash and—you know it—T-Pain. The vocoder is kept to a minimum on this track—you can actually understand the terrible lyrics T-Pain is singing—but "Cyclone" is pretty awesome anyway. And, like Soulja Boy, "Cyclone" has sparked its own little YouTube dance craze. Decide for yourself if moving your body like a major meteorological disaster is a good thing. Grade: B+.
6. Kanye West, "Stronger"
Kanye is still rich. And full of himself. And pretending people are out to get him. Etc. Grade: B-. (Same as last month)
5. Colbie Caillat, "Bubbly"
Colbie Caillat is the daughter of Ken Calliat, the producer of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, which earns "Bubbly" automatic points from me. Now I have to take back those points because the chorus sounds like Five For Fighting's "Superman (It's Not Easy)," clinically proven to be the most annoying pop song about Superman ever written. This light-hearted, Lilith Fair-esque ode to the "bubbly" feeling of newfound love—who's cringing?—is an adorable anomaly on this week's chart. It's the one song without any pretense of coolness. You can also play it in front of your grandmother without embarrassing yourself—though you may want to leave the room anyway. Grade: C+.
4. Alicia Keys, "No One"
Is Alicia Keys a neo-soul throwback to greats like Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack, or Mariah Carey with more critical cred? Neither, based on "No One." In no way is this your usual, everyday catchy pop song. In fact, it's pretty weird for the Top 5. Keys is barely in tune as she wails over a simple piano part for about four minutes: the only sign that she's shifting into the chorus is a fat synth line reminiscent of The Beach Boys Love You that zooms in every 60 seconds. So, um, I guess I like it then. Grade: B.
3. Timbaland Featuring OneRepublic, "Apologize"
If "The Way I Are" is a pretty standard Timbaland song, "Apologize" sounds nothing like his usual fare. One expects futuristic robo-funk from the master producer, not middling, Mr. Mister-esque ballads. Actually, "Apologize" isn't really a Timbaland track, but rather a remix of a song by Colorado pop-rock group OneRepublic. The band is releasing its debut album Dreaming Out Loud next month; apparently its album-naming skills aren't any better than its band-naming skills. (Of all the obscure pop-rock bands Timbaland could have remixed, why OneRepublic? Will somebody please hook him up with The New Radicals? Now there's a band deserving of some exposure.) Grade: C+.
2. Chris Brown Featuring T-Pain, "Kiss Kiss"
It's TP and CB on "Kiss Kiss," the last piece of T-Pain's three-pronged plan for world domination via R&B single guest slots. Shockingly, I think I'm in the early stages of T-Pain fatigue. For some reason having the same guy sing the hook on every other song on the pop chart is starting to make everything sound alike. But I can't punish my man Chris Brown for that—the chorus reminds me a lot of prime period Nelly, and it's super catchy. Grade: B.
1. Soulja Boy, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)"
I admit it: Last month I totally copped out by giving Soulja Boy an incomplete. I didn't want to do it, but I couldn't figure out how to review what is essentially a review-proof song. So here I am, four weeks later, stuck in the same predicament: "'Soulja Boy' has a nice beat, but it is lacking the emotional resonance and intellectual depth I normally look for in a dance craze novelty anthem." I can't do it. "Soulja Boy" is an unstoppable force of nature right now, so I must simply lay down my critical sword and go on a pass/fail system. Since I fully expect Soulja to be stationed at the top of the chart when I visit again next month, I gotta go PASS.