1. “Bang Bang” - Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj - Destined to be a monster hit, “Bang Bang” takes everything from “Problem” and multiplies it against itself. The result is … a bit irritating. I feel old listening to “Bang Bang” - its compressed, hopped-up soul grates my sensitive ears. Jessie J’s fingernails are all over this song; every one of her overly athletic notes screams, “I’m important! Listen to me!” Ariana Grande breezes in after her, lapping her verse like Usain Bolt: she’s not as close to Mariah as people think, but she effortlessly lets the sunshine in, in the way Mariah’s voice, at her height, could. Nicki is Nicki: a genius who due to multiple factors - prejudice, the collapse of urban radio - struggles to own the centre of the pop conversation. Nicki is on everything, and on everything we wish she was a teensy bit better: we’ve all heard “Monster”; we know she could be. But it doesn’t really matter - she has such an expressive, enjoyable voice that we take a deep breath when she starts her verse, and sit down, ready to be schooled.
2. “All About That Bass” - Meghan Trainor - I suppose that it is good, from a political standpoint, that a song about loving your regular-sized body is so successful. But oh god, why does it have to be this one? The actual music is turned down so as not to offend anyone - it’s basically a sung rap over a generic backbeat, and you could imagine it being equally huge at dance clubs, weddings and toddlers’ talent shows. It’s very Karmin-esque: all of Trainor’s winks and nods stand in for musicianship and songcraft. I suppose this should be read as “attitude,” but Trainor’s lyrics feel too much like an argument to make it sound like she actually believes what she is saying. I want her to study Nicki’s rap in “Anaconda”: “He can tell I ain’t missing no meals.” The substitution of the verb from “skipping” to “missing” flips perceptions about how her size could be read, and makes no apologies: Nicki knows her meals make her look great. Instead of arguing with the status quo, I think it’s always better to write as if the world we want to live in already exists.
3. “Maps” - Maroon 5 - The definition of inoffensive. At least, the song is; the video’s horrific message is “kiss another girl and your girlfriend will die.” (Why can’t Levine die instead?) There is nothing here; this is a song for the gaps in our lives, for waiting rooms and areas and lines, to soothe us without us being aware we are being soothed. It slots so easily onto a radio playlist, it will be with us for months; once we hit 2015, everyone will have forgotten that it existed.
4. “Rude” - Magic! - I wished for the end of Iggy Azalea’s domination of the Hot 100 this summer, and I got my wish in the deformed way all wishes are granted: this song took over. I can’t imagine a more sonically garbage-like song than this. Reggae has never been my favorite genre - I prefer more upbeat and harder Caribbean music - but when dopey, Canadian, lite-rock bands do reggae: YARRRGGGG. I am frequently embarrassed to be Canadian. This song is the equivalent of having my baby photos uploaded to Instagram: I am so sorry America, world, everyone.
5. “Stay With Me” - Sam Smith - I feel like ballads are having their moment, aren’t they? For years, I was anti-ballad, and now many of them are exciting me; Miley Cyrus, for all her bad-girl antics, is the likely culprit. I think I’d love this song even if I didn’t know “Stay with Me” is about a gay one-night stand - the idea of old ladies tearing up over that situation just gets me. After all, Smith’s skill is the way his voice sounds perpetually on the edge of falling apart, and then he sings himself through it. Most boyband heartthrobs try this tactic, but they can’t nail the actual quality of a cracking voice so well and so thoroughly. Smith teases it out, wrestles with it, finds always new and different ways to a resolution. His voice is new - unlike Adele, he is not aiming to sound like a particular style of voice - but it is also impossibly old. The only worry is that he may rest too comfortably in the bosom of his mature fans and gradually lose all need to push himself forward.
6. “Burnin’ it Down” - Jason Aldean - I might be the worst person to review a country song, but here goes: it’s ohhhh-kaaaaay. That xx-like, burbling backbeat is the only novelty in the song’s generic illustration (“Cold Jack Daniels”) of two generic people having sex. Why are people so busy to laud normcore as a new idea when it has been around us the whole time?
7. “Chandelier” - Sia - I was just rereading Tom Ewing’s original Guardian piece on Jessie J, and I was reminded of his idea that new pop stars are successful when they claim a place in the pop canon that we are surprised to learn wasn’t already claimed. Sia’s “Faceless Popstar” shtick is probably the most powerful pop idea this year (why did no one think of it before?), and it is slowly pushing “Chandelier” - a mid-tier pop song in any other universe - up the charts. It’s not all bad: I may find her songwriting dreary and uncool, but her voice can thrill. When you listen to “Chandelier,” you wade through the grouchy verses to reach the moment when her scratched-up voice does swing, like a chan-de-li-heeeer. I can’t say I like this song, or ever really listen to it all of the way through, but I like it sitting on the charts, beaming a quiet thoughtfulness to the pop clatter around it.
7. “Boom Clap” - Charli XCX - Charli XCX is such a hero - “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons” are like lost pop masterpieces: they are alien and alluring; they make me imagine an alternate, hyper-magical 80s where their post-apocalyptic romance is the least interesting part of radio’s landscape. In contrast, “Boom Clap” is such a nothing. It doesn’t invite you in; it doesn’t suggest other worlds; it just hopes that the gothy window-dressing of the verses distract you enough until you make it to the cymbal clash chorus. There are some artists who are cool because they are always capable of producing new ideas; there are the artists who have one cool idea and steadily dilute it throughout their career. I am going to hope that Charli XCX is in the first group.
9. “Shower” - Becky G - Becky Gomez co-wrote this song with Dr Luke (of course), so I’ll give her a clap for that. And I could say that I almost liked this song: the verses have swing, and the overall vibe is young and fresh. But of course, then that .fun-esque, pseudo-anthemic “La da de” hits. Also, the more I hear that sampled violin, the more I despise its paltry attempt to add texture. It’s supposed to be a mix of rap and indie-pop - cool and new - but Becky can’t convince me, and all of the parts hang separately, showing their seams. She has potential, though: she just hasn’t figured out what to say “no” to - she’s still too busy snatching at all the shiny things.
10. “Rather Be” - Clean Bandit feat Jess Glynne - This was a massive hit in England - the fastest-selling song of 2014 so far - and there’s no reason to think it won’t be equally big in North America. The first half of the chorus is fun and bright, and Jess Glynne’s vocals add depth. But then the fluttery strings strike, and I feel like I’m listening to “Classical Music Rocks!” Despite the obvious proficiency of the players, there is an amateurishness to their sound: their instruments carry no emotional message beyond that of “strings!” Without the lonely pairing of the electronic accompaniment with Glynne’s voice, the song would never earn its chorus’s ecstatic burst. But this musical naivete also benefits it: I trust young-feeling songs over songs that have been cleverly marketed and pitched to the young.