Top Ten Worst Hits of 2019 (10-6)

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!

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Ranting About Music’s Ten Favorite Albums of 2019

Like every other music obsessive on Earth (and probably the more argumentative circuits in the Mars rover), I’ve put together a list of my favorite albums of the year. You, I assume, know this, and have probably put together your own list, too. As always, I’m making a list of my favorite albums of the year, not the most acclaimed ones or whatever “best” really means in this context, although it goes without saying that I’d describe all of these as being great.

While 2019 was great for albums, there wasn’t one particular genre or scene that came to the forefront, which meant there was plenty of time to really dig into the stuff in your own little corner. It’s likely that this is going to continue as we get further into a streaming world, but it’s especially noticeable in year where most of the established stars are a no-show. But still, it was the kind of year where paring things down to a top 10 took a surprising amount of work, so, without further ado, let’s begin.

15. The National – I Am Easy to Find
14. I Love Your Lifestyle – The Movie
13. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
12. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
11. Proper. – I Spent the Winter Writing Songs About Getting Better

10. Chris Farren – Born Hot
Image result for born hot album cover"Immortal being Chris Farren has spent over a decade living in the area where punk, indie, and pop all intersect, and Born Hot represents some of his best work. The trick with an artist like Farren, one who’s constantly involved with some project or another (for instance, I first encountered him as half of Antarctigo Vespucci with Jeff Rosenstock), is that the constant output means the difference between “good” and “great” can often feel intangible, but Born Hot just clicks. The album draws a lot of pathos from binaries, like the one between the absurdist kitsch of the album rollout and the fact that it’s an album about someone doubting their ability to love and be loved, or the one existing between opener “Bizzy” questioning everything about its protagonist and follow up “Love Theme From ‘Born Hot,’” in which Farren implores his partner to just stay in love so they can avoid the hard questions. It’s potentially heady stuff that never feels too pitying or suffocating against Farren’s refined power-pop with a slight lounge music influence that never loses its spark over a 37 minute long runtime. Born Hot could fall by being either too undercooked conceptually or musically, but the album puts in the work and is a consistently rewarding listen because of it.

9. Willow – Willow
Image result for willow album cover"The Smith siblings’ 2019 records this year are virtually a study in contrasts. Jaden’s gauzy, busy rap album ERYS works itself into knots it can’t untangle, while Willow’s lush, self-titled effort (billed as an album but clocking at an EP-ish 22 minutes) unfurls at its own pace. Willow’s casual pace matches its deliberating psych-soul production, which goes heavy on guitars and atmospherics without getting lost in its own vibe or having any redundant songs. Rather, the entire album flows nicely from one track to the next, and Willow’s voice, possessing a distinct timbre, is used as an instrument just as often as it is for lyrics. She can be sweet on “born in the wrong decade” muser “Time Machine” or wail on distorted closer “Overthinking It” while sounding equally adept at both. While Willow can get a little faux-deep and “realign your mind’s eye” at times, it largely scans as personable (also c’mon, teens are always going to sound a little like this), and it wasn’t until the end of the year that I realized how often I listened to this thing. It’s a brief listen, but one that never disappoints.

8. Leggy – Let Me Know Your Moon
Image result for let me know your moon album cover"“Angular” gets applied to so many damn bands, but Cincinnati (woo) self-described lush punks Leggy write riffs, hooks, and songs that truly bend and snap themselves in surprising directions. Songs will zip straight ahead only to introduce a yo-yoing riff during the chorus, a vocal line that pivots in a direction you weren’t expecting, or slightly off-kilter interplay between guitar and bass and it’s these choices that make Leggy songs memorable. The album’s twangy punk rock sonic palette has a sneaky amount of variety from drone (“Eden”) to alternative radio rock (“Not What You Need”) to rockabilly (“Bad News”) to grunge (“Prom”), but no matter the exact song, Let Me Know Your Moon has the liberation of a late night drive with the windows down. Leggy get hit pretty often with the “odd” tag, and it makes sense: they match their femininity with scuzzy, heavy hooks and lyrics like “I am not a burner phone,” and while odd, it’s also cool, because these choices stem from self-assurance. Leggy know what they’re doing, and it’s not only great, but singular. But maybe I’m saying this because my moon’s in Virgo.

Image result for norman fucking rockwell album cover"7. Lana del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Listen, this album’s already topped so many year-end lists that being the 108th person to blurb it this month alone feels like an exercise in futility, but I get it: in a year that didn’t have a pop culture lightning rod Album of the Year going into list season, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is as solid a pick as any. It’s the album where Lana foregoes the flower crown trap bangers while bolstering her Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter side and working with an It producer (personal villain Jack Antonoff, whose entire Thing is mercifully absent here) for an album that’s both of its time while still making room for something as left field as a Sublime cover. Maybe it’s me, but Normal Fucking Rockwell! reads like a “buckle down and study” effort by Del Rey to make the best album she could, and it pays off, not just with songs that aspire for Greatness like, er, “The greatest,” but also with affecting tunes like “California” and “Happiness is a butterfly,” and “Venice Bitch,” the sprawling, peyote-in-the-desert rocker that’s still mindblowing a year later. Is it all enough to bump Ultraviolence from its spot as my favorite Lana album? Well no, not exactly, but to paraphrase NFR! Itself: fuck it, I love it.

Image result for basking in the glow album cover"6. Oso Oso – Basking in the Glow
“Well sometimes you do what you feel/Well most times I feel like shit” is both a line from Basking in the Glow’s penultimate track “Impossible Game,” and a summary of the album’s perspective. It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’re going to be a better, more vulnerable, more giving person; you journal, you go to therapy, you regulate your emotions more…but it’s another to run that shit back each and every day, and that tension is what Long Beach band Oso Oso’s third album hones in on while being arguably the year’s best guitar pop record. Basking in the Glow is an evolved sort of pop-punk album, one that gets the impulse to luxuriate in its own shittiness, but also knows that feeling is nothing next to goodness, and so aspiring to that glimpsed goodness is the best you can do. It also knows the best way to do this is to grow together with someone, and matches this light with hooks and melodies that are downright iridescent from the first listen onward. Anyone who put a song from, say, Plans on a mix CD would love “The View” or “Charlie,” and acoustic strummer “One Sick Plan” is a perfectly sweet acoustic guitar strummer. Trying to be good has rarely sounded this great.

5. FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
Image result for magdalene album cover"“Motion” is the first word that comes to mind to describe FKA twigs’ electronic art pop album MAGDALENE. Twigs, already a celebrated dancer, took up poledancing on the long road to MAGDALENE, and maybe it’s my passing familiarity with the form, but I can’t help but hear the motion of pole throughout the album (this is not an original thought: twigs herself featured pole in the music video for first single “cellophane”). You can hear it of course in singles like “sad day” and “holy terrain,” but even slower numbers like “daybed” have the momentum of a spin held in midair. The album achieves this by sheer quality of craft: twigs produced it with a battery of collaborators including Nicholas Jaar, Benny Blanco, Cashmere Cat, Sounwave, and more for her best-produced work to date, one that has room for both slow meditations (“thousand eyes”) and out and out gothic bangers with mutilated choirs (“fallen angel”). The guiding sound for this record is a minimalist, dark take on electronic music that reminds me more than a little of WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE ALL GO with the experience behind it. But the songs on MAGDALENE aren’t just sonic achievements, they’re twigs’ most intimate and personal songs to date, written in the aftermath of heartbreak and an illness that sidelined her for years. There’s a resilience and a power here, and the result is affirmation that can only come from self-expression, fitting for one of our most expressive modern artists.

4. PUP – Morbid Stuff
Image result for morbid stuff album cover"Toronto pop-punk band PUP’s 2016 album The Dream Is Over (still a cover art all-timer) was an album-long treatise on the physical, mental, and spiritual unsustainability of being in a band, so of course it’s the album that broke PUP through and meant them staying together as a band for even longer. Follow-up album Morbid Stuff is less overtly grueling, but possibly the darkest of the band’s three albums, focusing on adult fears like mortality, failure, helplessness, and one’s own inability to change. In some ways, it’s a companion album to Basking in the Glow: while both albums feature people aiming for self-betterment, BitG responds to adversity by doubling its efforts, whereas Morbid Stuff goes from meditation and organic food to wishing the Earth would explode after a chance encounter with an ex. Sometimes Morbid Stuff can’t help but grumble out of the side of its mouth about self-improvement, questioning how much this is all worth in a world that routinely goes to shit (“Free at Last,” “Scorpion Hill”), while at other times, there’s this longing for being a better person as a way to heathily cope with life’s challenges (“Closure,” “Sibling Rivalry”). Morbid Stuff also views substances less as a means of release and more akin to a punishment or self-flagellation; the macabre “Blood Mary, Kate, and Ashley” is fueled by a miserable acid trip, and singer Stefan Babcock howls “Let’s get high out of our minds!” less like a celebration, and more like he knows that lighting a joint is the closest he can get to setting himself on fire. It’s dark stuff for an impossibly great shout-along record, but PUP’s always been in the business of misery.

3. Mannequin Pussy – Patience
Image result for patience album cover mannequin pussy"Mannequin Pussy’s 2016 (y’know, it occurs to me I haven’t gone on record saying this anywhere, so let me fix that: 2016 was a fucking great album year) album Romantic was a 17 minute blast of shoegazey punk that’s held up so well that I think I might have underrated it on that year’s list, and third album Patience still manages to be a near-complete upgrade. There is of course flagship anthem “Drunk II,” frontwoman Marisa Dabice’s ode to feeling lost, messy, and vulnerable after a breakup that has room for both the lyric “I still love you, you stupid fuck!” and at least two guitar solos that’s rightly gotten end of year accolades, but that’s not all the record offers. Patience is still a Mannequin Pussy record, and as such, it’s filled with one and two minute long ragers that tell off shitty romantic partners and labels while strengthening the self. These songs have all of Romantic’s hardcore ferocity, but thanks to Mannequin Pussy’s growth together as a band and the hand of producer Will Yip (the guy behind other polished and punishing masterworks like Title Fight’s Hyperview and Turnstile’s Time + Space), each one hits with a newfound clarity. The longer songs are just as rewarding, too, especially closer “In Love Again,” where the album’s grinding tension explodes into the joy of embracing the unknown with someone. Patience is the rare band level-up that never loses track of what drew your eye in the first place.

2. Kitty – Rose Gold
Image result for kitty rose gold cover"Rose Gold’s CD version has a dedication on the inside cover that ends with Kitty saying the album is, “And, I think, for me.” This feels like a revelation for singer/producer/rapper/composer Kitty. From viral hit beginnings to mixtapes and EPs to a label deal to Kickstarter and beyond, expectations have always pressed on Kitty’s music in some form or another, be it D.a.I.S.Y. Rage’s deliberately “go off” raps, the tentative pop/dance/EDM steps on Impatiens and Frostbite, or the post-pop of first album Miami Garden Club. Those expectations are absent on Rose Gold, an album Kitty freely admits she made just because she wanted to. The result is her most varied project to date, one that draws on everything she’s done before, along with new influences from her work scoring video games and membership in indie rock band American Pleasure Club (formerly Teen Suicide, and fronted by Sam Ray; Ray and Kitty married in 2016). Rose Gold is also Kitty’s first self-produced project, and the album spans from submerged electropop to dance music to snotty rap to ‘80s pop (“B.O.M.B. [Peter]” is the breeziest pop song I’ve heard this year) to an anxiety break to yes, chiptune, and despite the breadth of influence, it works sublimely. Rose Gold stands as a unified theory of Kitty: her history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme in all the best ways.

1. glass beach – the first glass beach album
Having listened to this album, I cannot imagine anything else being my 2019 album of the year.

Image result for the first glass beach album"The band’s name comes from an actual beach in Fort Bragg, California, where disposed of glass refuse gets smoothed out and becomes part of nature again following life as man made, and something about that–the fluidity, the synthesis of natural and unnatural, the gestaltness of it–feels very much in line with glass beach and the first glass beach album. It’s an album made up of so many chaotic parts and pieces that compliment each other so well you can’t imagine it any other way. Just look at the song “Bedroom Community” for example (by all means, click that link and listen and then get back here): here’s a song that begins like a showtune run through a vocoder but then drops in some guitar rocking before going back to showtune jaunt with some video game synths in the margins, runs the whole circuit again, throws in an instrumental and gang vocal break before pivoting hard to a jazz combo version of the song you’re still listening to, and then that leaps into a Midwest emo run that finishes it out. Oh, and the song’s about the way we commodify trauma (especially trans trauma) all the way down. It sounds insane, and frankly it kind of is, but the execution is as flawless on “Bedroom Community” as it is the first glass beach album’s other epics, like the post-rock sprawl of “Dallas” and the band’s titular “I just want my friends to be loved and validated” track that has this giant, stadium rock chorus that’s the best thing mid-’00s Muse never wrote. At the same time, though, the band can do these quick and nibble punk bangers (shouts “Cold Weather”), spacey interludes, and flat out bizarre songs; in this fascinating interview that doubles as a reddit writeup, J describes “soft!!!!!!!” as as jazz ballad they weirded up with production, and honestly, that’s as fitting a descriptor as any for this album’s sound and creative process.

This somehow feels like an odd thing to bring up on a music site, but the music on the first glass beach album is just technically fantastic? The band shared the chords for “classic j dies and goes to hell part 1” and I mean, just look at this shit in all its aggressively seventh and slash chorded glory. Technical prowess isn’t required to make good music, but glass beach’s ability to dazzle and innovate elevates the album, and despite being a musically brainy record, it avoids the “look ma, no hands” pratfalls of most prog by not beating you over the head with it and instead just daring to be the loudest, truest version of itself. I heard somewhere lately during a best-of-the-’10s retrospective that sometimes albums that sound like the beginning of something really mean the end of it, and I don’t know if the first glass beach album is the culmination of this decade’s trends or a portent of the next’s, but what I do know is that it is the only thing like itself that I’ve heard.

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Album Review: Weezer – Weezer (The Teal Album)

We should have seen this coming.

To understand why The Teal Album is so obvious in hindsight, let’s wind the clock back a little. Last time we checked in on Weezer here at RAM was in 2016 with The White Album, the final piece of a three-part (Hurley was underrated!) “return to form” arc that proved Rivers Cuomo and company could still write swooning power pop when they wanted to after the band cratered in the late ’00s/early ’10s. About a year later came Pacific Daydream, a not-great album that, to its credit at least zagged where Everything Will Be Alright in the End and The White Album zigged by shirking the latter pair’s ’90s revivalist sonic pallet for a splashy attempt at modern pop rock, a reasonable enough idea that fell flat because no one knows what modern pop rock sounds like (although, if you wanna hear some of Cuomo’s most bizarre lyrics over the best song Foster the People never wrote, have I got a happy hour for you). Pacific Daydream was a rare holding pattern for Weezer: not good enough for “they’re back!” praise, but not bad enough to bury them, either.

And then, fucking “Africa” happened.

Okay, so if you know you know, but if you don’t: somewhere in December of 2017, a 14 year old from Cleveland started an online campaign for Weezer to cover Toto’s “Africa.” It started, in the kid’s words, as an absurd joke, but between the fact that Weezer are the sort of shamelessly earnest quirksters who boosted YouTubers before they were fashionable (in every sense of the word) and that “Africa” has unseated “Don’t Stop Believin'” as the internet’s semi-ironic throwback jam of choice, there was always a chance that “And now, listen to Weezer’s cover of ‘Africa'” was going to be a real thing. Well, six months later, it happened, and the cover itself is…not great; “Africa” as done by Weezer has the stilted ribbing of a corporation trying to monetize a meme, and while the execution is fine, it lacks a certain vividness. Oh, and it’s also the band’s biggest hit of the ’10s (#51 on the Hot 100), and it’s generated more buzz than anything off Pacific Daydream.

And, because Cuomo is willing to dedicate himself to any pursuit if he thinks it’ll garner a response, here we are, reckoning with The Teal AlbumTeal is a 10 song (“Africa” and 9 more) cover album that the band surprise released last Thursday, and unlike most cover albums that aim for cred-booster selections, Teal encapsulates a believable setlist for any cover bar band in the union: “Sweet Dreams,” “Take on Me,” “Stand by Me,” and the one daring choice in the bunch with “No Scrubs.” These are all such obvious choices that I already know cover versions for half of them off the top of my head. You’d think that’s kind of damning, but honestly…Teal might be sort of good?

How can I think that Teal‘s decent when I abhor the song that started it all? Well, part of it is because of how Weezer engages with humor and irony. In short, Weezer are incapable of being funny on purpose. Endearingly oddball? Yes. Bizarre, even? You bet. But as soon as Cuomo even sniffs at a joke, he’s dead in the water; compare the effectiveness of “Buddy Holly”‘s earnest, dorky huff of “What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl?!” to any other forehead slap inducing use of rap slang in Weezer’s discography for an example. Writing in 2014 for Grantland, music writer Steven Hyden called this phenomenon “fog of Weezer,” stating “It’s possible that Cuomo is so profoundly awkward that his sincerity comes out sounding funny and his jokes come off as sincere” and posits that Cuomo’s questionable sarcasm can be confusing or infuriating. I think that’s what happened with “Africa:” Weezer were aware that them covering the song was a gag, and so they waffled on the punchline, and I hated it.

But Teal is entirely the band’s creation. It’s irony free, and all the better for it. Weezer aren’t doing these covers and going yacht rock because it’s funny, they’re doing it because they think it’s awesome. The band fully commits to nailing the song, and so you get results like the playful “Mr. Blue Sky,” a spirited “Sweet Dreams,” and a surprisingly apt vocal for “No Scrubs,” which is way better than it has the right to be. Cuomo is more deft as a singer than Weezer’s reputation suggests, not only does he crush “No Scrubs,” but he faces down “Take On Me” and walks away clean.

Another reason Teal succeeds as a fun novelty is that, ignoring a touch of distortion here, some extra “Bah bah bah” backing vocals on “Happy Together” there, these are mostly note-for-note recreations with a little extra muscle and polish. On one hand, there’s something to be said for originality–Marilyn Manson‘s snarling, buzzsaw version of “Sweet Dreams” is guaranteed to outlast what Weezer offers on Teal–but on the other…aren’t “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Happy Together,” and “Paranoid” perfectly written stone cold classics already?

Teal only really biffs once (twice, if you’re counting “Africa”) with “Billie Jean” neglecting the low-end, but it’s enjoyable as a one-off. Teal has, as it inevitably would, prompted a hint of backlash from oldhead Weezer fans writing faux-disappointed “Why won’t this band just die already?” pieces, and at this point, it’s worth taking a step back. “Beverly Hills,” a song considered the nadir of Weezer’s existence when it came out, is now about the same age I was at its release. Raditude, which in one song contains rock bottom for not just one but two careers with plenty of low-lights between then, turns ten this year. If you want a ’90s band whose going to honor the sanctity of the era and their canon then, I don’t know, see what Eddie Vedder’s up to. Weezer long ago decided they were going to go their own way, and so when you see Rivers cue up “No Scrubs” on the karaoke machine, you have to know you can either sing back up or head for the door. He’s gonna go for it, regardless.

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The Top Ten Best Hits of 2018, pt. 2 (5-1)

Hello, and welcome to the final day of Listmas 2018! Thank you for reading! It’s been fun being back, and I hope it’s been a fun for you, too. We’ll resume coverage in January of 2019. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to take my girlfriend to Cheesecake Factory. See you next year!

5. Ella Mai – “ Boo’d Up” (#15)
This is the second of two songs I referred to yesterday that leaned on the “Had to peak this year” rule, since “Boo’d Up” was first released in February 2017, but peaked a year later after exposure pushed it up to number 5 on the charts. “Boo’d Up” is British R&B singer Ella Mai’s debut single, and with its zoned out, piano and synth-heavy beat, joins “Needed Me” in the “Wait, DJ Mustard produced that?” Hall of Fame. Both the track and Mai capture not only that starstruck feeling of being in love with someone, but the undercurrent of panic that comes with falling for somebody when that’s not Something You Do. Mai’s gone on record stating that the title comes from “boo’d up” being “a heart beat-ish,” but I honestly think the term comes more from the private language and shorthand people come up with to talk about their emotions with themselves and the closest people to them. And like I said, the track does an incredible job imitating that feeling; it carries a vibe without disappearing into the ether, which is harder to do than it looks. “Boo’d Up” is a great song, and when paired with “Havana,” really shows that “2017 releases with halfway nonsense choruses that surged in 2018” was a mood this year.

4. Childish Gambino – “This Is America” (#51)
Yes, I’m talking just the song here and not the song and the video. Even as just an audio experience, “This Is America” is a dense mix of tropical guitar, horror movie strings, a choir of Donald Glovers, trap, ad-libs from Young Thug and 21 Savage, naturalistic percussion, and lurching bass that doesn’t fall apart on itself like the art school project it kinda sounds like. It slaps surprisingly hard for a song that feels entirely wrong to wild out to.

3. Ariana Grande – “no tears left to cry” (#20)
The thing about a phrase like “no tears left to cry,” is that it can really go one of two ways based on your outlook. Either you’re anguished and spent because you’ve been through it all and have nothing left, or you realize that having nothing left means that you’re ready to move forward. Because Ariana Grande has such a big, powerful voice, my first thought was that “no tears left to cry” was going to go the anguished route as a ballad about having no more tears left in her after the trauma-inducing terrorist attack at her Manchester concert, and that would be her big somber comeback moment.

But Grande, for possibly the first time, chose to zag where the expectation was to zig. “no tears left to cry,” dramatic intro aside, is a dance track, one that’s mostly based on the syncopation of UK garage with a few disco flourishes thrown in for good measure. The instrumental is solid (having superproducer Max Martin and his cadre of writers is as near a sure shot as you can get), and there are some clever vocal arrangements here instead of just telling Grande to go for it or doubling her vocals here and there.

There’s a new trick to “no tears left to cry” with Grande doing a spoken/kind of rapped cadence with “I’m pickin’ it up/I’m pickin’ it up/I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up,” and while it’s nothing revolutionary, it’s also the sort of choice she wouldn’t have made on a Dangerous Woman single. To me, it speaks to the relative ease of “no tears left to cry;” every Ariana Grande single before this–even when it was great–was at least a little stiff, a little preoccupied with being an Ariana Grande Single. But “no tears left to cry” gives her room to breathe and instead of trying to sing a song into oblivion, she’s comfortable living it. Grande, as has been pointed out in every EOY writeup, has been through a lot, and even if she might have some more tears left to cry, she’s got a song that’s as much a testament to resilience as it is a groove.

2. Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey – “The Middle” (#8)
Look, “The Middle” should be garbage. It’s a mercenary “Super producer + between cycles vocalist + wild card” single that mostly rounds out “Modern hits” Spotify playlists. It’s chasing the sentimental post-EDM wave kicked off two years ago by “Closer.” It more or less has the same title as another sad-eyed post-EDM track that I love. It’s functionally a rewrite of Zedd’s own “Stay” with Alessia Cara from last year. It’s the embodiment of corporate pop; the music equivalent of an artisan hot dog.

But holy fuck it’s so good. Zedd and Grey (a production duo from LA who almost damningly named their EP Chameleon) do a solid enough job on the first verse, as does country singer Maren Morris, but it’s that chorus goes off like a bomb. Morris sings with a choir of robo-copies harmonizing, and while it could be off-putting, the way they blend with Morris and the earnestness with which she sings is a stop and listen moment. And then the instrumental kicks back in behind her with this massive, all-encompassing beat, but, what makes the song, what really shows that “The Middle” gives a shit, is that warbling synth that chimes in after each line Morris sings in the chorus. It’s one of those touches that doesn’t have to be there, but adds so much. Which is great, because “The Middle” admittedly relies on the beat’s texture and Morris selling the everloving shit out of it to convey emotion from boilerplate “can’t we work it out?” lyrics. If this was something like Halsey in “Closer” or even Cara on “Stay,” “The Middle” wouldn’t be nearly as great, but with Morris throwing extra oomph (peep the way she goes changes up “I’m losing *my mind*” at the final chorus, or the desperation that pushes through in every “Bay-baay!”), the song absolutely soars.

1. SZA and Kendrick Lamar – “All the Stars” (#47)
“All the Stars” is the sound of culmination. It’s a culmination for SZA, who was barely on any major radar before the breakout that was ctrl last year, where she proves she can do triumph just as well as she can do heartbreak. It’s a culmination for Kendrick Lamar, who with “All the Stars” and TDE’s curation/production of Black Panther: The Album, proves he’s no longer a rap head upstart, but someone who can make himself the focal point of something as big as a Disney project without losing himself. Hell, even as the credits song for Black Panther, it fits perfectly as the closing statement for Marvel’s single best movie.

It’s also just a damn great song. At first, people weren’t entirely sure what to make of it because its spacey synths, drum pads, and violins (there’s so much going on in this Sounwave beat if you listen to it on headphones) didn’t really match what Kendrick or SZA were known for; here’s this gleaming, interstellar anthem from a pair who had most recently explored Southern rap and humid R&B. But going somewhere else makes sense because “All the Stars” isn’t just part of SZA or Kendrick’s canon, it’s meant to reach out and grab anyone listening. And honestly? It works great by going broad: Kendrick’s verse builds hype, SZA’s verse adds a beating heart to the whole thing, and her larger than life chorus captures the feeling of anything being possible. It taps into universality without getting syrupy.

“All the Stars” also demonstrates where pop fit best in 2018: as part of something else. Be it by appearances in TV or movies, music videos, as #challenge and app soundtracks, or as part of an artist’s on-going narrative, pop songs themselves were the accompaniment to experiences this year. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just that it is. And we’ll see how it continues next year, thanks for reading. There’s a full Listmas link below!

Listmas 2018 Schedule
December 19th: Top Ten Favorite Albums of the Year
December 20th: A Brief Inquiry Into 2018
December 21st: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 22nd: Top Ten Worst Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2
December 23rd: The Gibby Fifty (50 favorite songs)
December 26th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 1
December 27th: Top Ten Best Pop Hits of the Year, pt. 2

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