By Annie Zaleski
Pop music often gets a bad rap for being disposable or vapid, and in many cases that's true. (Katy Perry, Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls, step right up!) But every year, a few irresistible bits of innovative ear candy rocket up the charts and seep into our subconscious.
The following ten singles saturated the Top 40--or what passes for hit-oriented radio in this topsy-turvy musical climate--while proving that accessibility doesn't necessarily preclude creativity.
Few adolescent pop stars have aged as gracefully as fleet-footed Chris
Brown. Produced by Polow da Don, "Forever" was first recorded in
shortened form for a Wrigley's Doublemint gum ad; accordingly, the
longer version of "Forever" is a grown-up bit of (no pun intended)
bubblegum hip-pop that's still young at heart. Rounded techno beats and
digitally warmed vocals conjure the giddiness of puppy love, a time of
life when the entire world shines with hope and promise.
"Viva la Vida"
Coldplay gets flak for its perceived pretentiousness, but "Viva la
Vida" tempers that bombast with effortless humility. The song's sturdy,
hearty strings (arranged by Davide Rossi, who's toured with Goldfrapp)
and triumphant, church-bell percussion stand in sharp contrast to the
soft, synthesized ambiance of Viva la Vida or "Death and All His
Friends." Lyrics about a fallen ruler tortured by regrets -- including
dishonest behavior and excessive hubris -- portray a fallible figure
that's more relatable than most pop-song heroes.
The U.K. act Lucky Soul and its vintage-girl-group sass might have more
underground cred, but it's Welsh chanteuse Duffy who's earned
widespread kudos for her retro cool. "Mercy" sounds like a relic from
Swinging London's Carnaby Street, with its kicky mod-surf organ,
Watusi-perfect syncopation and Duffy's faraway, AM-radio-icon vocals.
Her soul-drenched rasp at times channels Nancy Sinatra, Lulu, Dusty
Springfield and Motown divas, but the 24-year-old's confidence and
intonation are wholly her own creations.
ESTELLE, FEATURING KANYE WEST
Based around chunky disco-funk chords from Boys Noize's "& Down"
and techno-soul beats from "Impatient," by Will.i.am -- who produced
and co-wrote the song -- "American Boy" is a butterflies-in-stomach
daydream. Sassy U.K. soulstress Estelle flips the usual longing for the
exotic in favor of visiting U.S. hot spots (Broadway, Brooklyn, L.A.)
with her all-American crush. (Even her distaste for his "baggy jeans"
can't hide her coy liking for "what's underneath them.") It's not every
day that Kanye West takes a back seat to anybody, but his dull guest
verses add nothing to this whimsical, breezy narrative.
LIL WAYNE, FEATURING T-PAIN
2008 was inarguably the Year of Weezy: Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III was
one of the few bright spots in terms of album sales (it sold a million
copies its first week in stores), and the stuttering single "Lollipop"
dominated all summer (and has already spawned a hard-rock cover by
Framing Hanley). Still, Wayne's appeal is much clearer on "Got Money,"
a song on which orchestral flourishes and gleeful celebrations of
excess (and of Wayne himself) abound. T-Pain's vocoded vocals chime in
from the peanut gallery and move the song along, matching Weezy's
gravelly, animated expressions word for word.
It took the inclusion of "Paper Planes" on a movie trailer (Pineapple
Express) to propel M.I.A. into the mainstream. But it's still an
unexpected hit: Hyphy-like snaps and her laissez-faire jump-rope chants
devolve into a chorus that's full of gunshots and cash register
ka-chings. An omnipresent sample of the Clash's "Straight to Hell"
drones in the background throughout, a melodic trick that seems
brilliantly apt when M.I.A. cheekily slurs, "Yeah, I've got more
records than the KGB," on the song's bridge.
The first single from Year of the Gentleman is a sleek, chrome-plated
R&B jam. A plaintive acoustic guitar melody and magnetic dance
beats -- which obliquely resemble Underworld's mid-'90s heyday -- match
Ne-Yo's longing for an alluring woman. The attraction between them
grows stronger as "Closer" progresses; Ne-Yo repeats the phrase "I just
can't stop" over and over, and by the song's end, his voice is breaking
with desire and need.
The Barbadian beauty's Good Girl Gone Bad (and the Reloaded reissue)
spawned hit after hit in 2008, but the fever dream "Disturbia" stands
above them all (save for her shoulda-been smash duet with Maroon 5, "If
I Never See Your Face Again.") A song suitable for a teenage slasher
flick, "Disturbia" matches an indefatigable electro-pop backdrop with
dread-filled lyrics and a bouncy, wordless chorus. This uncertain
atmosphere matches up nicely with Rihanna's delivery, which ranges from
detached cool to mild panic, the discotheque equivalent of
Snoop's said in interviews that his talkbox-aided distorted vocals on
"Sensual Seduction" honor the late funk luminary Roger Troutman. The
super-deep grooves the latter crafted with Zapp -- along with the
oeuvre of bawdy genre stalwart Rick James -- especially influence
"Seduction" (or "Sexual Eruption," depending on where you're hearing
the tune). Bird-like chirps and pastoral keyboard surges mingle
suggestively with Snoop's laid-back leers. In other hands, these
come-ons would be sleazy or cheap, but the inimitable Snoop somehow
makes all the caddishness sound charming and irresistible.
"Whatever You Like"
It's fitting that T.I.'s "Whatever You Like" samples the Rocky II
theme, as the Atlanta rapper's chart-topper is an unqualified artistic
knockout. Produced by Jim Jonsin (of Lil Wayne's "Lollipop" fame), the
song succeeds because of its minimalism. Loping tin-can beats and
micro-beep synths are the only accompaniment, leaving T.I.'s generosity
toward his lady in the forefront. "Stacks on deck, Patrón on ice," he
speak-sings with sincerity. "And we can pop bottles all night/Baby, you
can have whatever you like."