Calvin Harris is the biggest DJ in the world. This is true in terms of dollars (he’s Earth’s highest-paid party-rocker, by an even larger margin than last year) and human bodies (he appeared to draw the most massive crowd at Coachella this year). “Summer,” a song he sung himself, hit the US top 10 and was a legitimate Song Of The Summer contender. Now that we’re into autumn, his John Newman collaboration “Blame” is the #1 song on Spotify. And with this week’s announcement of a new album featuring everyone from Ellie Goulding to Big Sean to Gwen Stefani to Haim to Tinashe, Harris seems poised to continue his dominance. Judging from the smash success of those singles and the star-studded look of the tracklist — a reprise of the approach that made 2012’s 18 Months such a smash — the new Motion is all but predestined to keep Harris on top of the world.
Born 30 years ago in Scotland under the name Adam Richard Wiles, Harris was a pivotal figure in EDM’s mainstream crossover. By producing Rihanna’s flawless 2011 single “We Found Love,” he helped usher that untz-untz electro-house style from clubs and festivals into regular radio rotation. Beyond shaping the sound of pop, “We Found Love” contributed to a change in the way we think about pop music. The song was credited to “Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris” even though Harris didn’t contribute vocals. After that, DJs began moving further and further into pop music’s foreground, with beatmakers such as Avicii and Zedd taking lead credits on dance-pop tracks that once would have relegated them to the liner notes. In another era, “Wake Me Up” would have been an Aloe Blacc song and “Clarity” would have been a Foxes song, but in grand house music tradition, now the DJs were the big names and the singers were the (relatively) anonymous figures. Not since Fatboy Slim’s heyday had the pop charts seen so many hits credited to beatmakers, and never had it been more widespread.
If Harris helped make pop radio safe for those who don’t sing, it’s not because he himself doesn’t sing. “Feel So Close,” featuring Harris on vocals, climbed the charts simultaneously with “We Found Love” in late 2011 and was nearly as important in his rise to stardom. In fact, although “Summer” was the first time Harris sang on one of his own tracks in almost three years, he used to sing on just about all of them. Long before the EDM explosion, Harris had a fruitful career in the UK as a disco-funk hitmaker and mid-level festival mainstay. On 2007 debut album I Invented Disco, he was (for lack of a better term) a hipster DJ, kicking out sexy, retro-tinged party jams that had more in common with Chromeo and Jamie Lidell than Afrojack and David Guetta. NME loved him and Pitchfork panned him, but neither side of the divide could have predicted what a huge, influential figure he would become.
Ready For The Weekend, Harris’ 2009 sophomore set, was a transitional album of sorts. It still sounded like it belonged on Fool’s Gold or Mad Decent, but songs like the ebullient title track showed Harris dabbling with guest vocalists and unapologetic embrace of big, brash club music. Two years later, he had gone all-in, leaving behind the urban cool of his older records for a broader, more universal sound. On tracks with Ellie Goulding (“I Need Your Love”), Florence Welch (“Sweet Nothings”), and Ne-Yo (“Let’s Go”) lacked in subtlety, they made up for in sheer blunt force. The beats were humongous, the melodies were catchy, the lyrics were universal, and each of them were unapologetically simple. That’s been his big trick, stripping back the stylistic trappings to create club tracks in which you can see the moving parts without letting the man get lost in the machine.
Not that Harris’ music has become minimal — not by any means. There aren’t that many audible components to a Harris composition, but every one of them gets up in your face and makes sure you won’t forget it. Sometimes, as on “Let’s Go,” the effect is obnoxious. Other times, as on “We Found Love,” the results are euphoric. “Summer” and “Blame,” his two latest hits, are as grandiose and gaudy as anything he’s released. And like all his best tracks, each one captures a glimpse of humanity within the bombast; the vocalist is never anonymous on a Calvin Harris track, and not just because he works uniformly with big-name stars. In his world, singer and song tend to feel like separate entities dancing together. Sometimes it’s pretty, sometimes it’s not, but it certainly seems to have struck a chord.
WHO IS HOZIER?
Hozier is Saturday Night Live’s musical guest this week, and unlike recent megastar guests Ariana Grande and Maroon 5, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. He is neither a US chart-topper (yet) nor an internet cause célèbre. Rather, the soulful Irish pop singer born Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a feverishly beloved cult favorite coming into his own. With his self-titled album out worldwide this week, the SNL gig is both the culmination of a couple years of slow-burn success and the likely launchpad into a new echelon of fame. As with fellow Euro exports Bastille and Sam Smith, Hozier’s early SNL appearance likely foretells a year of omnipresence on festival bills and US radio.
His impending superstardom is not worth getting excited about but also not worth getting mad about. Hozier plays it safe in the same way Bastille and Smith did, serving up a combination of coffee-shop folk-rock and blue-eyed soul that falls short of its sultry ambitions but lands right in radio’s sweet spot. His look and sound are reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, but he’s far more straightforward and less whimsical. And despite undeniable vocal skills that rendered him a soloist in the traveling choral group Anúna, his low, brooding tenor comes off dull and plodding compared to Buckley’s rhapsodic falsetto. His other clearest inspiration, Van Morrison, crackled with character in a way that eludes Hozier. He’s so smooth that I can’t quite get a grip on him.
Hozier’s breakout hit was “Take Me To Church,” a song that works the age-old sex-as-spiritual-experience angle in not particularly inspiring fashion. Like most of the guy’s music, it aims for transcendence but lands with a thud. “Take Me To Church” was the title track from the first of Hozier’s two 2013 EPs, and it leads off his new album. The record’s dark-tinged explorations of folk, blues, and soul get more appealing from there, but it never really clicks. For music designed to send chills down the spine, it mostly leaves me cold. Still, a lot of your Facebook friends who think they like indie rock but actually like Foster The People are going to be losing their shit for this guy.
Blake Shelton rules the album chart this week, notching his second #1 with 101,000 in sales for Bringing Back The Sunshine. Billboard notes that it’s the third country album to top the Billboard 200 this year after Eric Church’s The Outsiders and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum. There could have been a fourth if Lady Antebellum’s 747 had debuted during a lesser week. That one sold 74,000 to enter at #2. It’s the first time since November 2010 that country albums have occupied #1 and #2 on the chart; back then it was Taylor Swift’s Speak Now and Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party. The country dyad puts Barbra Streisand’s duets album Partners at #3 with 73,000 and the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga duets album Cheek To Cheek at #4 with 59,000.
Prince lands both of his new albums in the top 10, with 51,000 copies of Art Official Age (#5) and 26,000 for 3rd Eye Girl’s Plectrumelectrum (#8). He’s the first artist to have two separate releases debut in the top 10 since Nelly’s Suit and Sweat hit #1 and #2 respectively in 2004. Kenny Chesney’s The Big Revival slides to #6 with 39,000, while Maroon 5’s V is up to #7 with 31,000 thanks in part to an SNL appearance. Chris Brown’s X is down to #9 with 24,000, which is about the same sales figure as #10 album Sound Without Silence by the Script (who?).
Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” continue to go 1-2 on the Hot 100 for a fifth straight week. It’s also the fifth straight week the top 5 has been monopolized by women, a new record. The other three have been reshuffled to Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora’s “Black Widow” at #3, Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang” at #4, and Minaj’s “Anaconda” at #5. (Per Billboard, the previous four-week run was in 1999 and involved Monica’s “Angel Of Mine,” Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here,” Cher’s “Believe,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” Brandy’s “Have You Ever?” and the Whitney Houston/Faith Evans/Kelly Price jam “Heartbreak Hotel.”)
A woman is at #6 as well: That’d be Tove Lo with “Habits (Stay High).” Jeremih and YG are the highest-ranked males on the chart with “Don’t Tell ‘Em” hitting a new peak at #7 without even a music video to contribute to online streaming. Speaking of videos, Maroon 5’s “Animals” is up from #33 to #8 after its gory, controversial clip went viral. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Ariana Grande/Zedd’s “Break Free” round out the top 10 at #9 and #10 respectively. Notably, One Direction’s “Steal My Girl” debuts at #13 and will probably hit the top 10 soon.
Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud”
As professions of enduring love go, “Darling, I will be loving you till 70″ feels a little unambitious, no? People live to be much older than 70 these days. Like Drake’s mom says, “Who the fuck wants to be 70 and alone?” The video’s private ballroom dance routine is also sufficiently corny. Yet this soulful, uplifting John Mayer pastiche is the most instantly likable song I’ve heard from Sheeran. His seething fuck-you “Don’t” was already growing on me, and “Thinking Out Loud” further suggests he’s not 100 percent terrible. I still think “Sing” is total garbage, though.
Kiesza – “The Love”
Kiesza has already proven her knack for breezy, sinewy house jams several times over, but she’s never released a song with this much girth.
Nick Jonas – “Numb” (Feat. Angel Haze)
Jonas has done convincing takes on the Weeknd and Miguel, and now here’s something like his very own, less cartoonish “Dark Horse” rewrite. The crazy thing is that he seems to be carving out a sound of his own simply by virtue of the influences he’s checking for. Which is to say that I like “Numb” a lot and am really looking forward to this album. (Also, maybe Angel Haze’s career isn’t done for after all.)
Gavin DeGraw – “Fire”
Weirdly, “Fire” sounds like a cross between Fall Out Boy and Alex Clare. It’s not as good as “I Don’t Want To Be,” the MOR pop-rock hit that put him on the map, and honestly that’s not a very high bar. We’ll consider it a positive that this is not a whitebread cover of Jimi Hendrix or the Ohio Players, though.
Tove Styrke – “Borderline”
Sweden sure is producing a lot of talented, sassy, amoral pop singers named Tove these days! The “Borderline” in question seems to be the one between Lykke Li and Santigold.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Lana Del Rey profiled her sister, fashion photographer Chuck Grant, for Nylon. [Nylon]
- Taylor Swift’s People cover mimics Mia Farrow’s pose from the magazine’s first issue. [Today]
- If Ciara and Future’s romance gave us “Body Party,” just imagine what kind of super hot fire she must be recording right now after he cheated on her. [Idolator]
- Charli XCX thinks Britney Spears’ albums are “so intelligent.” [Just Jared]
- Among those who were pitched “All About That Bass” before Meghan Trainor recorded it herself: Beyoncé. [The Guardian]
- Here’s an interesting look at what pop music must deliver during 2014’s final quarter to be satisfying from a UK perspective. [Popjustice]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Nashville, sorry I can't come out to say hey tonight after the show!! Still not feeling 100% and need to sleep!! So sorry xxxx
— SAM SMITH (@samsmithworld) October 8, 2014
Best night EVER at a karaoke bar in Nashville!!!!!!!!! http://t.co/TG1vtCoiqS
— SAM SMITH (@samsmithworld) October 8, 2014