Good MusicNote 4.16 get lucky DAFT PUNK FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS

They certainly did.

single: Get Lucky

artist: Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams

Electronic music icons Daft Punk hit the jackpot this time. And to my ears, it is quite a bit like the jackpot: random, not necessarily unearned, but could just as easily have gone to someone else.

The issue here may be how to evaluate a by-the-numbers classic disco song in the midst of the post-disco EDM era.

Pro: there’s something refreshing and straightforward about a smooth vocal (courtesy of Pharrell, in this case) gliding over a percolating, sparingly embellished dance beat, when EDM dictates abrupt halts, dramatic breakdowns, and frantic synth flourishes.

Con: it can come off as old-fashioned and two-dimensional, given the layers that today’s DJs have built on the foundation that groups like Daft Punk laid years ago. As a matter of fact, this record is quite restrained by Daft Punk’s standards, not just EDM’s.

I’m not terribly impressed with “Get Lucky,” but I’m quite happy that a duo of dance music innovators are cashing in on their own legacy.

Good MusicNote 4.15 that’s my kind of night LUKE BRYAN

Better not invite Randy Travis to this night outing… just sayin’.

single: “That’s My Kind of Night”

artist: Luke Bryan

Country music is an anomaly as far as contemporary music goes. It’s the only genre that reflexively rejects technological advances and gee-whiz production gimmicks. Each decade brings a trickle of fresh sounds, but tradition is king in country.

However, Luke Bryan is here to change that. Right now. “That’s My Kind of NIght” is the type of obvious pander that you feel guilty for liking even when you’re not a country music fan. It’s uncomfortably contemporary; it makes Taylor Swift look like Loretta Lynn.

I for one appreciate the sacrifice Luke Bryan made here, because this song cannot possibly win (except for the fact that it’s very popular and will make lots of money). On the one hand, Luke Bryan as a country artist is held to the Hankocratic oath: he will not be funky, use anything resembling a hip-hop beat, or push buttons in the studio that make those dance-music sound effects. He breaks the oath mightily here. I’m quite sure the Grand Ole Opry has plans to burn him in effigy.

On the other hand, someone like Nelly couldn’t have released this record because the tongue-in-cheek country-isms that Luke gets away with (jacked-up pickup trucks, catching catfish as a dinner date) would be seen as derisive in the hands of a non-country artist. Luke himself barely gets away with it.

But if you ignore all the genre tension permeating the record, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, like any self-respecting pop hit should be.

Good MusicNote 4.1 wrecking ball MILEY CYRUS

Heard any good similes lately?

single: “Wrecking Ball”

artist: Miley Cyrus

It’s almost unbearable. The levels on which we can take the central simile (strictly speaking, not a metaphor, because she uses the word “like”) of our nation’s new number one single are more numerous than any record I can recall.

Of course, there’s the literal level of the song’s narrator, apologizing to her lover for coming on too strong. Then there’s the real-life level, since the song appears to be parallel to Miley’s romance with Liam Hemsworth. Hot on the heels of her VMA twerkfest, it could be seen as a self-reflection on the outrageousness of that performance. (One would have to presume she had planned that performance well in advance for that to be a purposeful meaning.)

Finally, and most striking to me, is the idea that Miley (as she looks directly into the camera and cries in the music video) is talking to us, the public, saying (and I paraphrase): “I didn’t want to have to cause such a stir, but by being known as Hannah Montana for my entire public life, I had to shatter any preconceived idea that you had about me in order to show you who I am beyond that Disney character.”

All conjecture aside, this second single off her upcoming Bangerz is an abrupt U-turn from the languid R&B vibe of “We Can’t Stop.” Here, she is intense, intimate, and decidedly pop-rock–sonically, closer to the Miley we know, but still much more adult than she left off with her last project two years ago.

In what appears to be yet another homage to the 80s (please see just about every review I’ve written so far), “Wrecking Ball” leaves the listener scrambling for a lighter to wave; its arena-rock ambitions are as bare as Miley in the aforementioned music video.

Direct and well-executed and perfectly placed, “Wrecking Ball” accomplishes quite a bit in its four-minute span. Just when the Miley buzz is both deafening and about everything except music, she shows she has talent, not just scandalously-garnered attention.

Good MusicNote 4.14 clarity ZEDD FEAT. FOXES

One thing that isn’t clear is where these artist names come from.

single: Clarity

artist: Zedd featuring Foxes

Anton Zaslavski featuring Louisa Rose Allen. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Yet these are the given names of the two artists responsible for this latest emo-EDM smash. I think it’s fair to say that the hip-hopping of pop music is complete. Remember when it was considered odd that rappers never used their real names?

But enough of that. “Clarity” is a fine example of EDM’s current chart domination. Take a well-executed series of DJ techniques, which before five years ago would only be heard in the context of a club remix; apply a highly melodic, earnest vocal  track.

Then mix well. Pun intended.

Foxes gives a good vocal performance, channelling Bjork via Katy Perry. Zedd shows he can mix and direct a beat like any self-respecting DJ. It’s good stuff, thoroughly dramatic and cathartic.

It does suffer a bit in comparison to the stunning “Wake Me Up.” But, then again, so does just about every other standard-issue EDM track now that Avicii has opened up that door.

Good MusicNote 3.9 safe and sound CAPITAL CITIES

Mostly safe.

single: “Safe and Sound”

artist: Capital Cities

Much in keeping with the weird timetables of the current crop of pop top tens, this single was released well over two years ago. After buzzing about on different charts and in different countries, it has finally caught fire on the big chart.

“Safe and Sound” also shares the clear 80s stamp of many current chart-toppers. The unabashed poppiness of the lyrics and melody, along with the neatly sequenced synths and creaky-trumpet embellishments, harkens back to Howard Jones and the Pet Shop Boys (when they were playing nice).

There’s nothing here to swoon about or to be offended by. Maybe that’s the biggest piece of nostalgia we can attach to it–it is reminiscent of a time when a hit could just be a hit. No backstory, no tabloid buzz, no copyright battles–just a competent song nugget.

The nondescript duo that constitutes Capital Cities used to write jingles. Watch while I make a surprised face.

Good MusicNote 3.6 summertime sadness LANA DEL REY VS. CEDRIC GERVAIS

What rules?

single: Summertime Sadness

artist: Lana Del Rey vs. Cedric Gervais

Pop music has opened up in the past couple of years; so much so, in fact, that there seem to be few if any rules about what makes a hit.

Case in point: Lana Del Rey, a virtually un-pigeonhole-able artist from New York who’s a superstar across the world but has only enjoyed modest success here in the States.

Until, that is, a French DJ named Cedric Gervais remixed a song she released over a year ago and made it an unexpected hit.

Things used to be so much more predictable.

What is still predictable is the striking contrast of a depressing love song and a house beat. First mined to great effect in the late 90s (see Deborah Cox, Whitney Houston, and Aaliyah club mixes of the time), it’s probably that contrast that caught attention where the original just seemed depressing to the American musical palate.

The American Bandstand mantra (“It’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it”) may be just the thing to get us on board for the enigma that is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant.

Good MusicNote 3.8 hold on, we’re going home DRAKE FEAT. MAJID JORDAN

Home to the 80s, perhaps?

single: “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

artist: Drake feat. Majid Jordan

Every so often, a record wallops you over the head with a dreamy melodic and percussive precision, unobtrusively metered lyrics, and sinewy, effortless vocals.

Every so often, a song makes you forget you’re a consumer being sold a product. It makes you feel instead like a lucky witness to a four-minute capsule of magic.

Every so often, an artist comes along who can make this happen. Drake came tantalizingly close on “Take Care” and “Find Your Love.” Here, there’s no mistake. I like Drake as a rapper, but he hits pop sweet spots with such dexterity that I can’t help but prefer the records where he sings. 

Drake mentioned recently that with his new material he was trying to capture a Michael JacksonQuincy Jones vibe; although he backed away quickly from the comparison in terms of talent, I won’t do that. Not on this track, anyway.

“Hold On” is an instant classic, drawn from the 80s playbook. The arrangement sounds like an insanely harmonious marriage between R. Kelly and Toto (the band, not the dog). The vocals are silk, and the execution is jaw-dropping.

Good MusicNote 2.9 radioactive IMAGINE DRAGONS

A remarkable half-life

single: Radioactive

artist: Imagine Dragons

Over a year after entering the pop charts, these Dragons keep burning them up. And since this record has been hanging out on the media radar for so long, I doubt there’s little new I can add.

But I’ll try. The inspired rock tune has increasingly become an anomaly in the 21st century. Many can be dubbed exciting, creative, solid, powerful, or rockin’, Few have been able to generate the visceral I-dig-that-melody response that catapults a record into the pop stratosphere.

And when a band does find that sweet spot, it can quickly be pelted with ridicule from so-called rock purists (ask Kings of Leon). Were it not for this anti-pop bias in the rock crowd, I’m quite sure P!nk would be a mainstay on all the modern rock stations.

“Radioactive,” with its simmering, slow-motion groove, claims that pop-rock middle ground with authority. And that’s why the Dragons have been blessed with such a monster hit. The electronic elements don’t hurt, either.

Good MusicNote 2.8 royals LORDE

The tone at the top.

single: “Royals

artist: Lorde

I’m glad to see the pop charts opening up to an international roster of artists. I profiled Swedish DJ Avicii‘s new single yesterday. Today we’re looking at New Zealand’s Lorde and her ubiquitous single “Royals.”

And while it would be easy to play on her native land with a lame “Lorde of the Sings” joke, I prefer to stay on topic and slap her with the dubious title of this year’s Gotye. Once again, a down under artist hits it big with an unlikely, brooding alterna-megahit.

“Royals” is a sullen meditation on how an average endowment of material blessings is preferable, even regal, in its own right. Between this track and “Thrift Shop,” 2013 has shown a pronounced anti-materialistic slant. And it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re riding a goofy hip-hop loop or a dark, head-bobbing beat –the message shines either way.

Somewhere, Neneh Cherry and Suzanne Vega are nodding their heads.


Or is it the other way around…

single: “Holy Grail“

artist: Jay Z featuring Justin Timberlake

The introspective sibling of “New York State of MInd,” “Holy Grail” is a sprawling tag-team effort that reads initially like two different songs: in the first, JT sings plaintively to a neglectful partner; one wonders if he got together with this girl after Bruno Mars wrote “Grenade” about her. In the second, Jay Z ruminates Michael Jackson-style about fame (i.e., plays the victim).

By the time Jay hands the microphone back to JT the second time, it’s clear they’re on the same page, singing the same complaining song–Justin is simply being a little more oblique.

It’s a great way to package an opening shot to the record-buying public. It’s also fun to see Jay Z (of all rappers) coasting along on the power of his featured singer. Justin gets way more time and leaves the more memorable mark on the song. Jay Z gets a plum breakdown spotlight in the middle of the record, but other than that, this appears to be business as usual for Mr. Carter.

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