WHAT UP? Welcome to the Listmas Top 10 Worst Hits of 2019, our annual look at the most questionable songs that made it big over the last 12 months. Let’s chat for a second about process before we dive in.
This year’s worst hits list might feel a little…not nitpicky, but what goes wrong in these songs might scan as a pinch granular. This is a side effect of a couple things. For one, there’s the criteria I set for eligibility: only the songs that made the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 qualify, no double-dipping (“Girls Like You” made last year’s worst list, so it’s DQ’d now), and it had to peak this year because this is the “worst hits of 2019” list, not “the worst hits of 2018 that blew up in October and skulked around the chart’s lower reaches for six months.”
The other thing is that the proliferation of streaming has lead to pop music’s drift toward the middle (even as “The Middle” gets further in the rearview) and increased homogenization. This is a remarked upon phenomenon: Craig Jenkins in a late 2017 piece entitled “Defining the Decade in Pop” for Vulture observed that our pop was consciously consolidating around a shared handful of flourishes regardless of genre. In 2018, Liz Pelly for The Baffler wrote about streambait pop, ephemeral playlist filler that exists solely to keep you from clicking away (quick note: anything you see about Spotify with a Pelly byline is a must-read). Chris DeVille at Stereogum wrote what’s become my favorite assessment of ’10s pop music in summer ’16 while reflecting on the surprising endurance of Drake’s turgid, excessive VIEWS, stating “..in the context of zoning out online, when the words start to blur away and music becomes a form of mental wallpaper, it’s easy to let an album like this one keep unspooling for 82 minutes…He’s [Drake] delivered an opus for lives wasted staring blankly at screens.” This is works cited-heavy way of saying that our pop music doesn’t stray too far from what it knows works, and it also at this point knows that it doesn’t have to pull you in, it just can’t be loud enough to make you pull out. This means that clean swings and misses like, say, “Don’t Call Me Angel” fail out in a hurry because they don’t catch on, and as a result, the worst of the year-end list tends to putz along with shoddy craft instead of be a loud failure like the “Blurred Lines” and “RUDE!”s of the world. Still, though, bad is bad.
Dishonorable Mention: Ava Max – “Sweet But Psycho” (#23)
There’s this moment in that Craig Jenkins piece mentioned above where he rattles off over a dozen pop songs that all in some way sound the same, and if your eyes glaze over halfway through that list, then you’ve felt the sensation of listening to streaming-core nothingbomb “Sweet But Psycho.” Everything this song does feels on loan from somewhere else, from the Rihanna reject sounding beat to Max’s Lady Gaga-esque stuttering vocals to the strong, independent woman messaging to the post-post-post-EDM drop at the bridge. Being made of spare parts can be fine–there’s not an original bone in like, “Please Me”‘s body and it’s still enjoyable–but “Sweet But Psycho” just has zilch going for it, and that Ava Max has the same “stop trying to make fetch happen” energy found in Bebe Rexha and Rita Ora just adds to the banality.
“Sweet But Psycho” has also been at the center of a thinkpiece tug of war over its use of the word “psycho,” with some arguing that it’s stigmatizing to throw “psycho” around in a pop song in 2018/2019, and Max arguing that the girl in the song isn’t psycho, but is being called psycho by the guy in her relationship when she’s actually just begin assertive. Both of these feel like a reach to me: even a casual listen reveals that “Sweet But Psycho” is very pro the “sweet but psycho” woman, but the song also includes the line “Grab a cop gun kind of crazy” which is not something a stable person does. The song also just isn’t exciting or committed enough to make the whole discussion worth it, so for total mediocrity and the minor headache of having to look all this up, “Sweet But Psycho” gets my annual “fuck this” award.
10. Panic! at the Disco – “High Hopes” (#11)
Look, it’s not just the Team Pete video.
The worst thing about the Team Pete video is that you watch this “just havin’ fun!” dance, and of course the dance is corny, stilted, and disingenuous…but you’re not surprised that it’s set to “High Hopes.” This song has the sort of hollow sentimentality and blandly aspirational lyrics that make it ripe for use in an environment where you need the most sanitized music possible, especially since you can boil it down to just the chorus and skip the filler-riffic verses. It’s a song that exists just to get blasted at you from speakers 50 feet away since it sounds like a clattering mess any closer.
“High Hopes” is also a weirdly kissass song for Panic? Like, I’ve gone on record before about not liking this band (click here for a circa 2016 ranking of their albums), but their music reliably has color to it; at least something as garish as “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” has the good taste not to have any. “High Hopes” meanwhile, makes a lot of noise without sounding like something that could only come from this band (or whatever Fall Out Boy’s been up to lately). They didn’t write “Fight Song,” but damn if they didn’t trace it for this tragedy.
9. Ariana Grande – “7 Rings” (#7, lol)
Aka Ariana Grande’s heat check. After coming into 2019 hot off a 2018 level-up and hype for another new album, Grande dropped “7 Rings” to promote thank u, next, and while it was a commercial success (it debuted at #1 and held the top spot for eight nonconsecutive weeks), it still feels like a step back. Give it this: sampling “My Favorite Things” for a song that’s just about you buying shit actually works. Where “7 Rings” fails is that it’s neither mean enough to be a shit-talking flex, nor slick enough to be vicarious fun. “Rich as fuck” songs, the ones that work at least, are either more a celebration of the freedom that comes with money than of the money itself, or a series of puffed-out-chest boasts where having money is secondary to how you’re expressing having it (“Niggas in Paris” is the former while “Cash Shit” is the latter). You don’t get either of those in “7 Rings,” a song that literally chants “I want it, I got it” at points and drops lyrics like “Happiness is the same price as red bottoms” and “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve them.” And the truth is, “rich as fuck” songs need that sheen of delight or creativity because otherwise you realize it’s just a millionaire lording their money over you.
8. YNM Melly – “Murder On My Mind” (#66)
While going down the year-end Hot One Hundo, you notice certain trends. In 2019, one of those trends was the popularity of quick-hit rap songs like “Suge,” “Ransom, “Pop Out,” “Envy Me,” and “Thotiana” that are in the SoundCloud rap mold of short run times, similarish beats, and singy performances that owe most of their success to streaming. “Murder On My Mind” fits in with this crowd, and its few charms (a decent line here and there, stark imagery) are overshadowed by it being a nearly four and a half minute long cliche-riddled dirge. It’s a song that straight up opens with YNM Melly doing the “I’m in the studio” phonecall schtick, and includes lyrics about haters knocking him off his grind, fake friends and fake girls, being in his feelings, and smoking the pain away. This is all stuff that’s real to Melly, but can’t help but feel rote after being the default mode of expression in rap for the last few years (ditto with this beat, which I can’t prove didn’t materialize into existence from neglected SoundCloud accounts). And it’s just such a punishingly long song that, if it isn’t 60% Melly croaking “I got murder on my miiind” at least feels like it.
“Murder on My Mind” came by its spot on here honestly, but while writing this I found out that not only is Melly currently in jail on murder charges, but that this news is what caused “MoMM” to blow up in the first place. It’s a story that’s sad and feels somehow distinctly 2019.
7. Blanco Brown – “The Git Up” (#56)
I have to assume that this is what “Old Town Road” sounds like if you hate “Old Town Road.” Still far less annoying than “Watch Me,” so at least it has that (PS: when’s the last time you thought about “Watch Me”?)
6. Taylor Swift feat. Brendon Urie – “ME!” (#43)
Taylor Swift is objectively speaking one of the most successful musicians of the last decade. She’s a talented songwriter, possesses an impeccable eye for detail, and knows how to market herself better than almost anyone. Virtually every career decision she’s made has been the best one.
The decision to release “ME!” as a lead single is astounding.
Swift’s lead singles have been musically questionable since as far back as Red, but deploying “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Shake It Off,” and “Look What You Made Me Do” first for their respective albums made sense. None of those are in their album’s top five, but they worked as narrative loci and set the tone well for what followed. In addition to sucking as a song, “ME!” doesn’t do that by any stretch: Lover gets more mileage out of Hack Antonoff synths and a guitar band setup than it does “ME!”‘s marching band drums and horns, and the album has more depth than the pep of its lead single suggests. “ME!” just doesn’t feel representative of the album same way that, say, “I Think He Knows” or “Cruel Summer” do.
What “ME!” does share and lay bare is the pandering quality hinted at in “WANEGBT” and “Shake It Off.” Swift’s pop-era lead singles have included these repetitive hooks that are meant to sink in immediately–think the “whee!” in “WANEGBT” or the repetition in every last line of the chorus in “Shake It Off.” It’s a thing you notice, but forgive because it’s catchy enough. “ME!” tries that, but the insipid “Me-hee-hee! Hoo-hoo-hoo!” hook feels less like being tickled and more like someone jabbing you in the ribs just to get a reaction. It’s not catchy, it’s cheap and irritating. That also goes for the forced cutesiness of the “You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me!'” bridge, a back and forth between Swift and Brendon Urie, who have the non-chemistry of two theater kids trying to play a convincing couple while not quite interacting. Just everything about the song reeks of cheap insincerity. Lover is alright as an album, but it feels like a brick in the wider culture, and “ME!” is no small part of that. You can’t spell “misfire” without “me.”
Part 2 tomorrow!