Taylor Swift’s last album, the indescribably brilliant 1989, made her the biggest star musician in the world, but it also set an almost insurmountable challenge for her follow-up. Her only hope to hold onto her crown was to do something absolutely nobody was expecting. And Holy Hell, did she deliver on that front. I now know what it’s like to be afraid of Taylor Swift. I’ve always loved her music, but it honestly never occurred to me that she could actually frighten me. This song makes all her angry songs from earlier in her career…”Better Than Revenge”, “Dear John”, “Bad Blood”, “Better Man”…sound like the love child of “You Light Up My Life” and “I Love You Always Forever” by comparison. The strangest thing is that the song actually samples “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred, and yet it manages to make the hook from that famously goofy song sound terrifying. It even closes with the most twisted tribute imaginable to the phone-conversation bridge from “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Taylor Swift is reaching Bob Dylan/David Bowie levels in terms of continual self-reinvention, and as afraid as I am that the world might not be able to handle an entire album of this kind of thing without going into an apocalypse, I’m still waiting for that next album with trembling anticipation. Emphasis on the trembling.
This is Pink’s latest attempt at a political song, targeted at the current Presidential Administration. She had tried this once before, back during the Bush administration, with “Dear Mr. President”, a collaboration with Folk-Rock duo the Indigo Girls. But that song was filled with very specific and temporal details, which not only makes it of little interest to anyone now that its political era is past, but arguably limited its impact even in its own time. From the Almanac Singers to Ani DiFranco, political songs full of specific details have always had their place, but what Pink seems to have realized is that employing universal archetypes and poetic language actually says so much more and has a far greater impact. It also ensures that your anthem will be as suitable for future generations’ ideological conflicts as it is for your own, rather than simply becoming a cultural relic only of interest to historians. Bob Dylan also learned this lesson…it can be easily seen in the difference between the protest songs on his first few albums and the more abstract, poetic protest songs of his mature career like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Tombstone Blues”. Some people have actually criticized Pink for taking a more poetic, universal approach to her political songwriting, but then, a lot of people criticized Dylan when he did the same thing back in the day. I, for one, find this a fascinating and beautiful songs that has a far more profound impact than the more heavy-handed and ephemeral “Dear Mr. President”.
Given the amount of sheer dreck he’s released in the past decade or so, it’s easy to intermittently forget that Tim McGraw is a musical genius and the greatest Country musician of the Pop-Country era. But there was a seven-year period in the late Nineties and early 2000s when every single he released was some of the most beautiful, intelligent and heartfelt Country music heard in any era. And while in about 2004, just after arguably his greatest single of all, “Live Like You Were Dying”, he suddenly took a drastic drop in quality, every now and then he can still release something that recaptures the magic of his glory days. And this 2013 hit was the best such song since “If You’re Reading This” in 2007. Given that Taylor Swift has always gone on record about being a fan of Tim McGraw, to the point of writing her debut single about him, this collaboration is really rather a heartwarming moment. Even better, this partnership seems to have brought out the best in both of them. Swift’s part on the song is admittedly rather small, but she has the charisma to make a deep impression with the short repeated refrain she’s given to sing, and the two seem to have flawless chemistry in spite of the fact that they were never even in the same room while recording this song. This is a perfectly balanced and exquisitely beautiful modern Country classic, and despite McGraw’s unfortunate experiments with Bro-Country around that time, this song seems to have been a harbinger of the general return to form represented on his next two albums.
In Paul Simon’s rough equivalent to this song off his 2011 album So Beautiful or So What, he posited that coming face to face with the Almighty God would reduce all our questions and protests about the way he runs the world to complete incoherence. While this sounds like a smart insight, perhaps it’s only because Simon, for all his musical genius, isn’t a great enough poet to face down the unimaginable with words alone. But if anyone could perform that feat in our time, it was Leonard Cohen. Here, on the title track and only single from his very last album, Cohen bitterly rips into God himself on the way he handles things in lyrics that are actually powerful and profound enough to do true justice to that concept. It serves, to some degree, as a counterpart and spiritual follow-up to his legendary “Hallelujah”, another song about standing before God and saying your piece. If this was the last testament Cohen would leave on this earth, he certainly went out with a magnificent crash of cosmic yet utterly human anger, and it ranks as one of the greatest artistic achievements of his illustrious career.
And another One Direction alumnus debuts with a solo single, and it’s…quite impressive, actually. The songwriting itself is absolutely searing, with some of the most profound lyrics in recent Pop music…it was apparently written while Tomlinson was coping with the recent death of his own mother, and it’s actually a very moving and meaningful tribute. The only problem is that the beat, while actually very well done as EDM goes, doesn’t really match the intended tone and tends to interfere with the lyrical and emotional content. The EDM dance-ballad form doesn’t really lend itself to such a content-rich composition as this, and the song probably would have benefited from a more straightforward, ballad-like treatment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the best things currently on the charts, but with a more appropriate arrangement, it might have even surpassed bandmate Niall Horan’s gorgeous single “This Town” as the best of the One Direction solo efforts thus far.
Taylor Swift has had some writing credits on other people’s songs in the recent past, most notably “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris and “Better Man” by Little Big Town, but this is the first new song she’s actually sung on since the release of the 1989 bonus tracks. Yes, it’s a single written for the soundtrack of a reprehensibly terrible movie, but so were Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” and Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain”, to name just two fairly recent examples, so it’s clear even bad movies can have outstanding soundtrack items. To tell the truth, former One Direction member Zayn Malik sings more of this song than his more famous duet partner (displaying some of his most beautiful falsetto singing to date, I might add), but Swift was the one who wrote this song, which is the really important thing. It’s a gorgeous piece, darker and more sensual than most of Swift’s earlier work yet still clearly building on the innovations of her last album. Granted, we’ve had more than our share of songs about toxic relationships in the past couple of years (“Closer” by the Chainsmokers in particular helped wear out the genre’s welcome), but Swift basically started that trend with her 1989 songs like “Blank Space”, “Style”, and “Out of the Woods”, so that gives her a certain license to continue writing them, especially since she does it better than pretty much anyone else. And I give her credit…much more so than The Weeknd or Ellie Goulding on the first Fifty Shades soundtrack, she seems to grasp that there is nothing romantic or healthy about the relationship portrayed in the film. Granted, I’m not sure the filmmakers themselves know that, but Swift certainly does, and this song of twisted, co-dependent obsession almost qualifies as a kind of stealth deconstruction of the franchise. In any case, this is easily the best song to come from a Fifty Shades soundtrack to date, and it only makes my anticipation for the next Taylor Swift album even more wild than it already was.
Here we have Kesha’s first release since 2013’s “Timber”, and while I’ve said some harsh things about some of her backlog in the past, I will readily acknowledge that this was more than worth waiting for. To tell the truth, the original version of this song, on the album of the same name, didn’t appear to be Zedd’s best work, certainly not on the level of “Clarity” or “Break Free”. But it’s Kesha’s revelatory performance that single-handedly elevates this merely competent EDM track into one of the finest songs of 2016. The raw pain, anger, and defiance in her voice seems to be the distillation of everything she’s been through in the past few years, and even the lyrics take on an entirely new meaning in light of her experiences. I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of Kesha’s later-career work (particularly the Warrior album), but this is easily the best thing she has ever recorded, and it’s even more impressive that this is thanks purely to her own contribution.
Looking back, it seems almost miraculous that this song was actually a Number One hit, especially in a mediocre year like 2014. After all, like Alicia Keys or Norah Jones, Legend belongs to that subgenre of R&B that is only tangentially connected with the Pop charts, and was made more to win Grammys than produce major Pop hits. Indeed, it’s worth noting that prior to this, he had only had two real hits in the previous ten years of his career, “Ordinary People” and “Green Light”, and both of them were actually quite minor compared to this one. That said, with Indie music of all kinds pouring into the mainstream at the time, and given how heavily the retro-R&B sounds he specialized in were dominating Pop music at that point, this was probably as fortuitous a time as any for him to reemerge. And this gorgeous, perfectly-constructed ballad with its touchingly simple lyrics is not only one of the finest hit songs of 2014, but ranks as one of the very finest crossover hits from the more esoteric side of the music scene in the entire modern era.