Take it from someone who started a weekly pop column last year: 2014 was a bad year for pop music. I write this knowing that there are still many self-satisfied blowhards in the world — sometimes even in the comments section of this very website! — who will tell you that every year is a bad year for pop music. That’s foolishness. Pop, like any kind of music, has its ups and downs. The ratio of gold to garbage is always in flux, and last year garbage (or, more realistically, palatable mediocrity) often seemed to win out more often on the charts. Here’s hoping 2015 will be golden.
We can’t know for certain what the coming year will bring. As meticulously managed and strategically mapped-out as the pop sphere can be, much of that planning is done in secret, and so many hits come out of nowhere from previously anonymous sources. The most inescapable song of the year might be on some as-yet-unannounced Katy Perry album, or it could emerge from a goofy Vine some 13-year-old recorded on a whim. That said, let’s make sense of what we do know.
First up: Which established stars have new projects in the works? There’s Madonna, of course, whose beleaguered Rebel Heart campaign couldn’t be going much worse. Between the avalanche of leaked demos, her embarrassing social media presence, and the unmemorable quality of most of the songs, it’s not looking good. Even “Bitch I’m Madonna,” with its Nicki Minaj verse, possibly-Sophie PC Music shtick, and patented Diplo drop, isn’t doing it for me. We’ll see if it all makes sense when the full album drops 3/10.
We know much less about Rihanna’s heavily rumored R8, which leaves a lot more to the imagination. We do know she made a song with Kanye West, Ty Dolla $ign, and Paul McCartney and that Kanye was heavily rumored to have spent some studio time with her last month, though all that might be for Kanye’s own project. She also posted on Instagram that Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt was in the studio with her. This Digital Spy piece points out that Kiesza contributed a song to the project, as did Sia (who penned Rihanna’s smash “Diamonds”). DJ Mustard and Ne-Yo are reportedly involved, and Sam Smith has strongly hinted at a Rihanna duet. She’s also working on a 12-song original album for the DreamWorks animated film Home, in which she has a part. No release date, title, or any other kind of official details have surfaced yet, and I’m hoping that the leaked “World Peace” is fake or rejected. Her albums tend to produce at least a couple year-defining singles, so hopes remain high for that one. (Note: Rihanna’s “Stay” buddy Mikky Ekko has a debut LP called Time coming out 1/20, and its Jeff Buckley-inspired lead single “Smile” was quality.)
Two more proven hit-makers trying to make a comeback this year are Gwen Stefani and Fergie. Both are working with some of the most influential producers of the past couple years (Stefani reuniting with Pharrell, Fergie linking with DJ Mustard and Mike Will Made It), but I haven’t been floored by what they’ve shared so far. That’s no surprise in Fergie’s case — I’ve never had much of a taste for her — but it would have been nice to see Stefani pull another “Hollaback Girl,” and neither “Baby Don’t Lie” nor “Spark The Fire” comes anywhere close.
There hasn’t been any news of a new Fun. album, which is too bad because their breakthrough Some Nights was one of the stronger pop-rock efforts of the decade so far. Three rock-oriented albums we’ll undoubtedly be hearing a lot about, unfortunately: Imagine Dragons’ Smoke + Mirrors (2/17), Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/American Psycho (1/20), and Kid Rock’s First Kiss (2/24). I’ll probably have more to say about those guys later this year — they’re good fodder for dissection — but suffice it to say the advance singles have been about as horrific as you could imagine: Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life” is an obnoxious barroom singalong, and Kid Rock’s “First Kiss” might as well have a serial number. (Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” at least sounds great in a football stadium.) My dark horse candidate to release the year’s best pop-rock album: Miley Cyrus, who’s been in the lab with the Flaming Lips for what feels like forever. If the fearless freaks are coming up with anything as good as their “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” cover, that time will be well spent. Alas, we’re probably due for a new Mumford & Sons album too.
I’ve already heard Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, and although it contains nothing else as magical as “Uptown Funk!,” it’s still as much of a winner as suggested by that song plus Ronson’s already-released Mystikal and Tame Impala collabs. Set for release next week, it’s sure to be an early bright spot. Speaking of early bright spots, if we’re lucky, Rae Sremmurd’s infectious SremmLife will bubble over from rap radio stardom to all-out cultural saturation. (Shazam data suggests that yes, they will.) And as long as we’re talking hit rap albums with major top-40 potential, it’s not hard to imagine one or more of those hugely anticipated LPs by Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West resulting in a crossover hit. Alas, still no word on release dates for any of those, although Drake has long promised that he’ll have spring 2015 popping. One rap album we do know is coming is Kid Ink’s Full Speed, which will undoubtedly yield hits as faceless as his previous pair of smash Chris Brown duets. We should all be praying that Miguel’s next album lifts him into a new stratosphere of stardom too; if Pharrell can pull it off, why not Miguel?
A couple ostensibly “pop” acts that could stand to get more popular this year: R&B girl group Fifth Harmony’s singles from Reflection (1/27) haven’t really taken off at radio, which is a shame because they’re absolutely killer. (I still swear by “BO$$.”) Similarly, “American Boy” singer Estelle’s comeback single “Something Good” was fire even though it failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic, so maybe her True Romance will follow suit when it finally arrives stateside on 2/17. From the vaguely “indie” sphere, I’m also still hoping Charli XCX and Jessie Ware’s 2014 albums will break through at US radio late, like Disclosure pulled off with “Latch” last year. And will this be the year Grimes, Sky Ferreira, Ryn Weaver, or Raury make their big leap into the world of top-40 radio? Shit, maybe Shamir will even crash the party.
Back to Disclosure: Now that they’ve scored a US top-10 hit, it’s worth wondering if they’ll strike back this year. They didn’t crack our list of the most anticipated albums of 2015 mainly because we don’t know for certain they’re releasing one, but the odds seem good since Settle came out way back in June 2013. Other artists who I’m hoping will contribute some quality music to the 2015 airwaves even though they haven’t said so: Adele, Lorde, Bruno Mars, Ellie Goulding, and maybe Perry, though I suspect she might be biding her time until 2016. Still just speculating here, but it would be nice to see the return of “Bad Romance”-quality Lady Gaga, too.
Now that we’ve dispensed with well-known name brands, what about artists that could edge their way into the conversation like Iggy Azalea, Meghan Trainor, and Sam Smith (or at least Bastille, Nico & Vinz, and Echosmith) did last year? There are lots of songs released in 2014 that seem poised to hit big in 2015. One likely candidate is AronChupa, whose foul-mouthed, angrily giddy Swedish EDM-pop kiss-off “I’m An Albatraoz” is currently catching on in the US. NYC pop-rockers MisterWives have a similar viral hit on their hands with “Reflections,” thanks in part to a video that employs the old Britney Spears trick of dressing up the performers in private school uniforms. (By the way, after her recent failures to land a hit, Spears herself seems content to make bank in Vegas singing older material.
Vigiland’s “UFO,” a Crystal Castles jock jam of sorts, is more likely to blow up in sports arenas than at radio, but in that realm it has potential to be a new “Sandstorm.” Far more radio-friendly EDM hopefuls are Kygo’s “Firestone” and Martin Tungevaag’s “Samsara 2015,” which might do for samsara what Nirvana did for nirvana. Bea Miller’s “Young Blood” is what I imagine Sky Ferreira would sound like if corporate executives had their way, which means she’ll probably rule everything soon. And I wouldn’t be shocked to see Megan Nicole’s jubilant “FUN” or Sheppard’s irresistible “Geronimo” climb into the upper reaches of the charts.
When we last checked in three weeks ago, Taylor Swift’s 1989 was the #1 album in the land. It still is: Swift’s album tallied its eighth nonconsecutive week on top, logging 244,000 equivalent units. Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint, which debuted at #2 over the holidays, holds at #2 with 84,000 units. Then come big surges from a lot of last year’s bestselling records, suggesting a lot of people used gift cards to pick up records they’d been meaning to purchase earlier (or simply didn’t know what else to buy, so they went with what’s popular): Ed Sheeran’s x and Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour climb back to #3 and #4 with 83,000 units and 82,000 units, respectively, while the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack is back up at #5 with 70,000. Hozier’s self-titled debut rises to #6 with 60,000 units, followed by J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive at #7 with 59,000. Disney’s Into The Woods soundtrack shoots from #19 to #8 with 59,000 units. Rounding out the top 10 are two of the best pop albums of 2014, One Direction’s Four (#9, 55,000 units) and Ariana Grande’s My Everything (#10, 43,000) — though Billboard notes that Grande’s album only registered 11,000 in sales and is the most obvious beneficiary of the Billboard 200’s new scoring system.
Over on the Hot 100, we have a new #1. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ fantastic “Uptown Funk!” ends Swift’s career-best seven-week run on top with “Blank Space,” which slides to #2. “Uptown Funk!” is Ronson’s first #1 and Mars’ sixth. It’s actually Ronson’s first single to hit the Hot 100 at all as an artist (he’s produced top-10 hits for Mars and Amy Winehouse), making him the first male artist since Baauer to hit #1 with his Hot 100 debut. One more #1 and Mars will catch up with Phil Collins, Frankie Valli, and Elvis Presley, though Billboard notes that Presley scored many, many #1s before the advent of the Hot 100. Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” is up next at #3, followed by Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” at #4. Meghan Trainor holds down spots 5 and 6 with “Lips Are Movin” and “All About That Bass,” respectively. The rest of the top 10: Swift’s “Shake It Off” at #7, Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” at #8, Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” at #9, and Maroon 5’s “Animals” at #10.
Kid Rock – “First Kiss”
Really makes you pine for “American Badass.”
Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do”
Not the finest work from Ms. Goulding, but when that last big chorus kicks in, “Love Me Like You Do” gets pretty hard to resist.
Fall Out Boy – “Irresistible”
From those “Trophies” horns to lyrics like “You know you look so Seattle, but you feel so LA” and “I love the way you hurt me baby,” “Irresistible” could be Fall Out Boy’s attempt at a Drake song — except it sounds a lot more like Imagine Dragons gone EDM.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- If you haven’t read Kid Rock’s infamous op-ed yet, it’s quite a thing to read. [The Guardian]
- Iggy Azalea mistakenly believes that Macklemore has not faced scrutiny for being a successful, poppy, white rapper (though to be fair, she probably faces more than he does because she’s a woman). [Vanity Fair]
- American Idol will be slimmed down to a single two-hour episode each week, and Scott Borchetta (of Taylor Swift’s Big Machine Records) will fill Randy Jackson’s adviser role. [Yahoo]
- Here’s a pretty savvy deconstructing of Taylor Swift’s Instagram persona. [Buzzfeed]
- Akon is releasing a five-part(!) concept album called Stadium this year. [Billboard]
- Saucy and/or racy photos of Sam Smith, FKA twigs, Tinashe, and Jessie Ware are on the cover of V Magazine’s music issue. [V Magazine]
- Rita Ora’s revealing outfit on British TV show That One Show drew hundreds of complaints from viewers. [Huffington Post]
- Apparently satellite radio is giving country stars their big break these days. [Rolling Stone]