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.
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.
I’ve been surprised by a lot of artists changing for the better (Kesha, One Direction, etc.), but I have to admit, if you told me that the best EDM act working in 2016 would be the people responsible for “#Selfie”, I would have laughed in your face. But with Calvin Harris working at far below his usual standard, most of the other top-drawer EDM acts absent from the charts altogether, and the genre largely being dominated by Justin Bieber of all people, the fact is that this and “Roses” are arguably the two best EDM songs of the past year. Here, they seamlessly blend the ambitious dance balladry of acts like Calvin Harris and David Guetta with the distinctive sounds of Trap acts like DJ Snake, creating a genuinely moving EDM ballad that still has a sufficiently modern sound to compete with today’s dance music. Making this song’s quality even more baffling is that the featured vocalist is Daya, best known for one of the worst songs of 2015, “Hide Away”. That said, despite her extremely poor choice of material, Daya was touted from the beginning as having a exceptionally strong voice, and while that wasn’t really particularly evident on “Hide Away”, it sure as Hell is evident here.
It says something that even after Ariana Grande released “Dangerous Woman”, “Be Alright” and “Into You” all in the same year, this is still the most erotic Pop song of 2016. Lovato’s last album, Confident, was full of wonderful material, including the most erotic song of last year, “Cool For the Summer”, but even the best material on it never approached this level of sublime beauty. Musically and lyrically, this song is on a par with the material on Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, and it is easily the most exquisite thing Lovato has ever released. I’m honestly not sure if there’s been a Pop song this sexy since “Hips Don’t Lie” was a hit a full decade ago. I was genuinely disappointed by the announcement that this would be a standalone single and not a prelude to a full album, but if Demi is capable of releasing more material like this, then I await the end of her planned 2017 hiatus as eagerly as I’ve awaited any new album since I first started following contemporary music.
This attempt by Lady Gaga to return to the mainstream Pop market doesn’t really seem to be taking off so far, but it is nonetheless a much more worthy attempt than anything on her previous Pop album, Artpop. Her time as a semi-Indie Grammy-bait musician seems to have facilitated her artistic growth, and here she drops most of the pretentions that obscured her talent during her Pop heyday, and just delivers an extremely sophisticated yet completely accessible Pop confection. It bears a certain resemblance to her Born This Way material in its heavy Rock sound, but it smoothly bypasses the problems of that album, with superb production (mostly thanks to Mark “Uptown Funk” Ronson) and the best songwriting seen from this artist since the days of “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance”. The music sounds like a fascinating blend of Jim Steinman, Bruce Springsteen, and the Dance-Pop of Gaga’s early career, and these elements blend into an utterly unique style. Meanwhile, the lyrics go for the same eloquent simplicity heard on “The Edge of Glory”, converting Rock cliches into dramatic truths. As I said, this latest attempt at a Pop single doesn’t really seem to be taking off on the charts, but I’m hopeful that the release of the song’s music video (which happened this very night, actually), will change that. After all, music videos have a history of contributing a lot to this particular singer’s success in the past, and the song certainly deserves to be a hit, especially considering the current lack of competition on the charts.