The Week In Pop: Presenting The Mid-2014 Pop Superlatives
Seeing as we gave you a mid-year countdown of 2014’s best albums so far earlier this week, now seems like a good time to step back and assess the best and worst of what the pop sphere has given us this year.
Our Irrepressible Pop Overlord, Albums Edition: The Frozen Soundtrack
How much bigger has the Frozen soundtrack been than any other album in 2014? It’s not only the only album to move 3 million copies in 2014, it’s also the only album to move 2 million, or 1 million for that matter. It is literally millions more popular than any other release this year. And its best sales weeks should have been in 2013! Frozen has topped the albums chart 13 times. Almost seven months since its release, it remains in the top 5. Every week it still sells more copies than most hits sell in their first week — more than most releases sell ever. And honestly, it deserves to. From “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” to “For The First Time In Forever” to “Love Is An Open Door,” it’s stacked with broadly appealing, practically un-hatable pop songs that click with kids and adults alike. Frozen seized the zeitgeist, and it will not let it go — at least until new Adele and Taylor Swift albums drop later this year.
Our Irrepressible Pop Overlord, Singles Edition: Pharrell
Like Frozen, Pharrell’s “Happy” has reigned over the charts with iron jazz hands this year; at one point, the song stayed at #1 for 10 straight weeks. And like Frozen, “Happy” began its rise to power in 2013. But Pharrell’s indomitability stems from more than just “Happy,” bae. Just like last year, he’s been everywhere in 2014 — rapping on the best rap song of the year and the best Major Lazer song in forever, ruling the Grammys with Daft Punk (and storming the Oscars too), popping up on SNL (twice), holding court at Coachella, scoring The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Hans Zimmer, soundtracking the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Playoffs, and, um, plagiarizing himself for Ed Sheeran’s benefit — this time with a gimmicky hat to boot. And, oh yeah, he released a hit album that wasn’t half bad. Maybe you’ve had enough of Pharrell, but if nothing else, he makes Pitbull easier to ignore.
Most Likely To Succeed: Iggy Azalea
Azalea is on her fourth straight week with the top two singles in the country — her first two charting singles, a feat only the Beatles could claim before. I wouldn’t be surprised if her new T.I. collab “No Mediocre” gives her a third hit near the upper echelon, either. For better or worse, it looks like she’s becoming the go-to guest performer of the moment and a genuine force in pop culture, one with enough gravitational pull that fellow rising stars Ariana Grande and Charli XCX feel like they’re in her orbit, not the other way around. That said, it will be interesting to see if Azalea can carry a hit by herself soon, particularly since most people couldn’t name another song on The New Classic besides “Fancy.” Note: Jason Derulo would have been a contender here for landing two singles in the top 10 simultaneously last month, also both pair-ups with other artists. But he moved five million copies of the Imogen-Heap-sampling “Whatcha Say” in 2009, and it seems fair to say anybody who lasts five years on the pop charts has already succeeded.
Most Likely To Never Succeed Again: A Great Big World
There was a time when A Great Big World’s half-decent Christina Aguilera duet “Say Something” was inescapable, but it already seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. If anybody from the annals of 2014 screams “one-hit wonder,” it’s these unrepentantly sentimental Ben Folds disciples.
Most Blandly Inoffensive Soul Singer On The Pop Charts: John Legend
Again, Aloe Blacc made this one a toss-up, but Legend is blander and less offensive. Honestly, though, Blacc gets worse the more his idiosyncrasies are ironed out, whereas Legend is at his best when he’s at his most traditional. I don’t even mind the maudlin, saccharine “All Of Me” anymore; it is this generation’s foremost first-dance-at-a-wedding ballad.
Men Least Likely To Inspire Women To Be “Loyal”: These Dudes
Most Pleasing Rejection Of EDM: Porter Robinson
The songs we’ve heard so far from Robinson’s Worlds showcase a prodigious talent freed from the rigid confines of one formula, on a quest to expand the horizons of another.
Most Pleasing Embrace Of EDM: Lil Jon
“Turn Down For What” always brings me to the verge of maniacal laughter — not because I’m mocking Lil Jon, because I’m reveling in the absurdity. It’s such a big, dumb, glorious song, one that turns hip-hop’s constant cries to “Turn up!” into something rebellious. On its face, a non-question like “Turn down for what!” is antagonistic, but like “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” before it, this is the sort of music that helps people rage together rather than against each other. And like that song, it would be a meaningless dunderheaded vamp if not for the wild vocal performance on top of it.
Best Reason To Actually Consider Turning Down: Coldplay
“Magic” is the iridescent mid-tempo jam of the year, and Ghost Stories is a winsome exercise in smallness from a band that specializes in doing it big.
Best Argument For Going All The Way Pop: Paramore
With “Ain’t It Fun,” America’s finest mall-punks made a gospel new wave funk song for the ages. There’s so much more where that came from on their 2013 self-titled release, and some of it even rocks.
Worst Argument For Going All The Way Pop: Ed Sheeran
I still can’t get over how much I hate “Sing,” Sheeran’s dance-pop single on which Pharrell recycles his production from Justin Timberlake’s 2002 solo single “Like I Love You.” I’ll listen to glop like “The A-Team” all day if it means I never have to hear “Sing” again.
Most Blatant Attempt At “Song Of The Summer” Status: Calvin Harris – “Summer”
It’s working, too. [Insert poop emoji here.]
Song That I Hate To Love: 5 Seconds Of Summer – “She Looks So Perfect”
As much as I would like to dismiss a song with a chorus like “She looks so perfect standing there/ In my American Apparel underwear,” I cannot dismiss that song because underneath the idiocy (and in part because of the idiocy), these guys understand exactly how pop music functions. Runner-up here goes to Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz.”
Most Ambitious Videos: Katy Perry
Prism is no match for Teenage Dream, but its videos are in the same league. Mad props to Perry for keeping the concept of an event music video alive with her elaborate “Dark Horse” and “Birthday” clips.
Most Underwhelming Use Of Undeniable Talent: Lily Allen & Sam Smith (tie)
I liked Lily Allen’s Sheezus enough to defend it, and my admiration for Smith’s powerful voice is well-documented. But Sheezus and Smith’s In The Lonely Hour are frustrating listens, both of them dotted with songs that range from amazing to almost-amazing yet failing to add up to more than “meh.” I am inclined to like both of them because they’re both so naturally appealing in their own ways, but I wish they’d made albums that didn’t force me to qualify my praise.
Divas On The Rise: Lorde & Lana Del Rey
Lorde has continued her victory lap throughout 2014, nabbing a pair of Grammys to go along with major turns at Coachella and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction among other feats. Meanwhile, Ultraviolence proved to be the masterstroke many of us didn’t realize Lana Del Rey had in her, and even without a triumphant album to her credit, Del Rey’s flower-headed fans would follow her to the edge of glamorous despair.
Divas On The Decline: Mariah Carey & Jennifer Lopez
They will always be icons, but neither Mariah nor J. Lo could manage a major sales coup with their first new albums in years. The reasons for this are myriad, but it stinks at least a little bit of the nasty double standard that tends to haunt aging women in the entertainment industry.
Divas Being Divas: Beyoncé & Shakira
Beyoncé’s surprise “visual album” was a 2013 release, but its ripple effects have been strong throughout 2014, and it firmly established her place at the top of the pop food chain. Shakira, meanwhile, is seemingly invincible no matter how mediocre her albums get. Hey, at least with galactic orgasm jam “Empire” she has a chorus to rival even Sia’s magnificent “Chandelier.”
Pop Culture’s 2014 Nadir: The Michael Jackson Hologram
We’re all going to be suffering from PTSD for a while, but we can get through this together.
MEET NICO & VINZ
With “Am I Wrong,” Oslo duo Nico & Vinz have rocketed from obscurity to worldwide stardom. But who are they, exactly? (A lot of people have been wondering that; “Am I Wrong” recently hit #1 on Shazam.) Nico Sereba and Vincent Dery first teamed up under the name Envy five years ago. Back then they were rappers, but as they’ve moved toward singing buoyant pop songs and changed their name to Nico & Vinz. Both guys have African lineage; Nico’s father is from the Ivory Coast, and both of Vinz’s parents are from Ghana. That explains the heavy African influence on “Am I Wrong” and its Botswana-filmed video. But Nico & Vinz are very much Scandinavians too, and if there’s anything Scandinavians are known for, it’s their knack for carefully constructed pop music. Vinz touched on all that and more when we chatted by phone Monday afternoon less than an hour before Ghana faced the US in World Cup soccer.
STEREOGUM: On “Am I Wrong,” one of the lyrics goes, “My prediction: I’ma be on top of the world.” Seems like a pretty good prediction right now.
VINZ: Yeah. I mean, the song was basically about just daring to trust your gut feeling and daring to dream and daring to go for something even though it seems impossible, even. It feels like it’s too far ahead to reach but, you know, being able to trust that you can go your own way and do what you wanna do and be happy. And so when we wrote that song, it was like, where we were at in our lives, in our career, even though we were far away from being here right now, it was like, ok, we can do this, we believe this, we can, and if we work hard enough and we really make the best music we can make, we can get anywhere.
STEREOGUM: Could you tell when you wrote this song that it was gonna catch on?
VINZ: No, actually, no. We weren’t sure at all, Nico and I at least. And the producer, Will Idap, he was like, I think this is it, and we were like, nah, I’m not sure about that. And then we showed it to some people and people were like really, this is awesome, and you know, sure enough we released it and it just took off. Just amazing experience to see.
STEREOGUM: I know you guys have said that you wanted the video to represent a more positive portrayal of Africa. With the music itself though, obviously you kind of captured that kind of African pop sound too. Was that an intentional thing or were you shooting for a song that would reflect that part of your guys’ heritage or was it just, that’s kind of the feel that ended up coming out?
VINZ: Well actually, I’m born and raised in Oslo, Norway — we both are — but my parents are from Ghana, and Nico’s parents, his father is from Ivory Coast and his mother is Norwegian, and so even in the process of making that song and the whole album, we really wanted to mix our heritage and our background and our roots into the music. As well as, you know, we used to rap before, so we got a lot of that urban influence as well, as well as just being Scandinavians and loving pop music and good melodies as well. So making that song, it was just, we really wanted to have all those elements in that, and so you can hear the song. They got the African drums, you got the 808 in there if you listen close, and the pop feel to it as well. So that was all what we really wanted to accomplish, try to mix that and find a balance that hasn’t been done the way that we’ve done it right now.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you guys used to rap, and I know I heard that on one of your older songs, “One Song.” Will your album be all singing or are you gonna do some rapping too?
VINZ: Actually there’s some rapping on there as well. So there’s some rapping, but there’s mostly singing.
STEREOGUM: What was the thinking behind that? Was it just the direction you’re moving in?
VINZ: Actually, to be honest, it’s just been like whatever feels natural. And we did a couple songs, it just felt natural to rap. I think even with us starting to sing more, it wasn’t really a conscious choice like yeah, right now we’re gonna sing. It’s more like, it just gradually happened that our sound evolved and we grew as artists as well. We always had this thing about really being us, you know, who is Nico, who is Vinz, and who are Nico & Vinz. And just trying to find who we are, and what we like, and what we don’t like, and really trying to incorporate that in our music as well. So I think the whole album and that song, as well as “Am I Wrong,” is just a reflection of us and where we’re at in our lives right now.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys start working together in the first place?
VINZ: Well actually, we got introduced through a mutual friend, and he was like, man, you guys would be awesome in the studio, try it out, and we were like, yeah, you sure? We tried it out and the music was cool and we had the same type of vision and dreams and we just connected on that level. You know, one song turned to a bunch of songs and we were really happy that we met and are able to share our dreams together.
STEREOGUM: How did you feel about giving up your old band name, Envy?
VINZ: Yeah. Actually, I mean, we really like the new name, Nico & Vinz, and we haven’t spent no time regretting at all. We wanted something that was more personal and more original, and Nico & Vinz feels really good.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, definitely it stands out a lot more, and it’s a lot easier to Google.
VINZ: Exactly. You know, there were like, computers, clubs, stores, everything. There’s a whole lot of different corporations named Envy, so we were like, “Man, this is impossible to Google too.” So it feels good to have something more original.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any sense of when the album’s gonna be out?
VINZ: We’re actually getting quite close right now, so we’re looking at fall.
STEREOGUM: Is there anything you can reveal about special guests or any little preview?
VINZ: There aren’t many features on the record as of right now. We really wanted to just make sure that we made the best music possible and that it represents us, Nico & Vinz, and we really want to introduce ourselves to the people and who we are and have that in the focus, you know? Get to know Nico & Vinz and have that, you know, two guys from Oslo, Norway, and their take on life.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned a couple of times you guys being from Oslo. Can you describe a little bit about the music community that you guys came out of?
VINZ: We started off rapping, so we were in the hip-hop culture and hip-hop community, and you know, I guess even now we can see that the whole music scene is evolving as far as international acts. We got a guy named Kygo, who’s doing EDM, we got Cashmere Cat, who’s also doing a lot of stuff internationally. Can’t even come up with any more artists right now, but I know there’s a couple more artists as well that’s doing a lot of great, great stuff internationally. So I think the music scene in Norway is definitely growing and becoming better, internationally as well.
STEREOGUM: We have very convenient timing for this phone call because right after we wrap up, the US and Ghana are playing each other in the World Cup.
VINZ: Yes, yes. Today’s happening, right?
STEREOGUM: Any predictions?
VINZ: Um, you know what? I hope Ghana brings it home, and if not, we’ll have to find some other way to dance to the groove.
(Note: The USA beat Ghana, so Vinz was right not to get his hopes up.)
Not only did Jack White’s Lazaretto break SoundScan’s first-week vinyl sales record with 40,000 copies sold — no doubt thanks in part to its innovative/gimmicky deluxe edition — the album also went to #1 on the albums chart with 138,000 in overall sales. (SoundScan went into effect in 1991; as Billboard points out, the previous first-week vinyl record was Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, which sold 34,000 vinyl LPs in 1994 after PJ released it on vinyl two weeks before the CD came out.) Notably, White would have taken #1 even without the vinyl sales, as Miranda Lambert’s Platinum lands at #2 with 62,000. There were no other debuts in the top 10, just a familiar procession of names such as Brantley Gilbert, Coldplay, the Black Keys, Michael Jackson, and the soundtracks to Frozen and The Fault In Our Stars. In a sad turn of events, not one but two Now compilations are in the top 10 right now: the top-40-oriented Now 50 and the country hits collection Now That’s What I Call Country: Volume 7. The latter debuted at #11 last week.
For the fourth straight week, Iggy Azalea owns the top two spots on the Hot 100 with “Fancy” (Feat. Charli XCX) and Ariana Grande’s “Problem” (Feat. Iggy). Besides Azalea’s continued dominance, the big story this week is the Canadian reggae-pop band MAGIC!, which rises from #7 to #3 this week with “Rude.” Top 10 mainstays “All Of Me,” “Wiggle,” and “Turn Down For What” are at 4-5-6, followed by our friends Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong.” Pharrell, Calvin Harris, and Sam Smith round out the top 10.
Fun. – “Harsh Lights”
Still loving the Freddie Mercury, I see. I was certain we wouldn’t be hearing anything new from Fun. for a while because guitarist Jack Antonoff seems to be spending 2014 on his solo project Bleachers, but here they are on The Tonight Show debuting “Harsh Lights.” The title suggests this might be your typical “coming to terms with newfound fame” song, but it sounds more like the sort of confessional that filled up most of Some Nights. Unfortunately, it feels like more of a deep cut, without the mad hooks that made “Some Nights” and “We Are Young” so instantly likable. If this is intended as a lead single, they’re choking big-time.
Maroon 5 – “Maps”
Not a Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover, unfortunately. (Fortunately?) Also not nearly as charismatic as the singles from 2012’s Overexposed, which actually weren’t half bad where faceless filler music is concerned. Even the DJ on my local top 40 station could only muster a begrudging “Maybe that one will grow on me.” You would think millions of dollars of The Voice money could buy a better song than this, but then again maybe Adam Levine is spending all that bank on hair dye.
T.I. – “No Mediocre” (Feat. Iggy Azalea)
DJ Mustard continues to find new ways to stretch his very simple formula. The little twinkles and steel drums threaded through this beat are a stroke of genius. Meanwhile, Tip is back in hit-making form, ruling over the track without breaking a sweat. And Iggy’s presence — not to mention her own casually commanding verse — pretty much guarantees this will be the hit it should be. Good work all around.
Jennifer Hudson – “Walk It Out” (Prod. Timbaland)
Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn. (In a good way.)
Ferras – “Legends Never Die” (Feat. Katy Perry)
Katy Perry is starting a record label called Metamorphosis Music, and Ferras is her first signee. OK? Legends might never die, but this song isn’t exactly the sound of a legend being born either. Like most of Perry’s Prism ballads, it’s well-executed, but there’s not much to set it apart from the pack beyond her own pre-existing star power.
Ed Sheeran – “Bloodstream” & “Thinking Out Loud” & “The Man”
By my count Sheeran shared five new songs this week. Despite being inspired by extremely painful real-life circumstances, “Don’t” (allegedly about Ellie Goulding cheating on him) is like Sheeran’s dated dance-pop experiment “Sing” but worse, and “Love Afire” (about Sheeran’s grandfather dying) is one of the blandest ballads I’ve heard in ages. But “Bloodstream” and “Thinking Out Loud” and “The Man” are three of the most listenable songs he’s ever done. The first is a moody folk-rock excursion that sounds a bit like a less grating Damien Rice. The second is a James Taylor-via-John Mayer roots-pop ditty that I quite like. And the third features Sheeran rapping (about zoning out in his headphones to “Holocene”!), and it actually reminds me of the Streets in a good way. I cannot believe I like an Ed Sheeran rap song. Congrats for cracking me, Sheeran!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Zendaya, the Disney Channel star who’s responsible for two incredible singles in “Replay” and “My Baby (Remix),” has been cast as Aaliyah in an upcoming Lifetime biopic. [CNN]
- T.I. faced off against Azealia Banks in a classic Azealia Twitter feud involving the phrase “syphilis-lipped rectum.” [Idolator]
- Kesha on her new music: “I think people are gonna trip out.” [MTV]
- Kesha also joined the other musicians involved with Rising Star (Brad Paisley, Ludacris, and Josh Groban) in explaining how their show differs from other televised singing competitions. [Billboard]
- A publisher affiliated with Simon & Schuster paid six figures for the rights to a One Direction fan’s erotic fan fiction. [Defamer]