Every month or so, I put together a new playlist in my iTunes roughly made up of all sorts of singles and album tracks that I’m digging at the time. In making a new one this past weekend, I noticed there was more mainstream pop/rock singles among my indie-leaning tastes than usual, and several tracks which could be considered guilty pleasures, if I believed in such a thing.
The relationship between mainstream and underground music has usually worked like this: every five years or so, mainstream music grows stale and raids the vibrant, exciting underground for whatever new sounds it can find to co-opt. It then spends five years milking these sounds until things grow stale again, and the cycle repeats. But the internet has completely screwed up this cycle for the better, and now the line between the mainstream and the underground is nothing but one constant blur. Now, bands like the Shins can reach the upper strata of the Billboard charts, and indie-leaning publications like Pitchfork can give Justin Timberlake their Song of the Year title.
So it’s in this climate that I present a look at some of the mainstream tracks that have recently caught my ear and, against the odds, received my support and acclaim.
After “Bones” seemed to be D.O.A. as a single, The Killers have thankfully gotten around to reaching one of Sam’s Town’s few true highlights. “Read My Mind” is probably the one track on the album where the Duran Duran-aping Killers of Hot Fuss coexist peacefully with the Springsteen/U2-aping Killers on the rest of Sam’s Town. As with the rest of the album, Brandon Flowers proves himself the band’s weakest link, delivering a vocal that, while not terrible, lacks the power or poise needed to truly drive the song home. Thankfully, the rest of the band holds him up with a wonderful synth-pop backing that’s equal parts dreamy and demanding.
The quality of Stefani’s solo work generally depends on how much she steals from 1980s pop music. When she does, the results are pretty spectacular (“What You Waiting For,” “Cool”). When she chooses to steal from hip hop instead, the resulting songs range from the mediocre (“Rich Girl,” “Luxurious”) to the mind-numbingly awful (looking at you, “Wind It Up”). Thankfully, “The Sweet Escape” falls into the former category, a lazy off-rhythm guitar riff that goes down like sweet candy and a charmingly catchy Akon-yodeled hook. The home run, though, are the descending synth notes in the chorus – they melt my cynical heart every time.
About time. Whoever is managing Beyonce’s career seems to have a really tough time picking great singles. With Dangerously In Love, “Crazy in Love” was followed by two crappy, utterly forgettable tracks before the world finally got to hear “Naughty Girl” on their radios. And with apologies to “Ring the Alarm” (which has its odd charm), it’s once again taken two mediocre singles (three if you include “Check On It” from the Pink Panther soundtrack) to get to “Irreplaceable.” Perhaps this oversight comes from a hesitation to put out a song this traditional, this far removed from Beyonce’s usual hip hop-influenced tracks. But come on, anyone with half an ear could tell that a chorus this sing-a-long, a lyric this charmingly tongue-in-cheek and a melody this simplistically sweet would be a massive hit. “To the left, to the left…”
While it might not become as big a crossover hit as some of his previous singles, when critics and historians look back in 10, 20, 30 years’ time, “What Goes Around…” will be seen as the moment in Justin Timberlake’s career where the man finally earned respect. Don’t get me wrong, folks like me have been saying “this kid’s alright” for a while now, but the case could be made that – not unlike Gwen Stefani – he’s been something of a blank slate for his various producers to work their magic with. But watching Timberlake perform this song live – rocking the piano on SNL and the Grammy Awards – is enough to prove to even the most doubtful of doubters that Timberlake is no flash in the pan pop star. Sure, there’s nothing new here – it’s pretty much “Cry Me A River 2: Cry Harder” – but the traditional instruments give the whole song a different, more authentic feel than anything Timberlake has done before, and the killer outro justifies the song’s epic running time.
MCR are something like a baseball player with a really crappy average that the manager keeps on the team because, every now and then, they’ll get to the plate and hit that son of a bitch right out of the park. They aim to be nothing less than the passionate, dramatic, anthemic soundtrack to teenagism but most of the time end up making self-indulgent, whiny, oh-so-horribly ‘emo’ music. But every now and then, just as they did with “Helena,” they come up with something like this, where every chord rocks, every riff connects, every wayfaring vocal hits home and every fist-pump warrants, nay, DEMANDS imitating in the comfort of your living room. I AM NOT AFRAID TO KEEP ON LIVING! I AM NOT AFRAID TO WALK THIS WORLD ALONE! F-yeah!