The Week In Pop: Fifth Harmony’s Reflection Is The First Great Pop Album Of 2015
People love to hate Simon Cowell — for pioneering TV singing contests with The X Factor and American Idol and/or for playing the role of resident asshole on those shows — but give the guy credit for this much: In this era of rampant individualism, he sees the enduring value of a team. We saw this principle in action when, while judging the British version the The X Factor in 2010, Cowell fashioned complete strangers Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson into this generation’s reigning boy band. One Direction have accomplished way more together than they ever could have mustered apart, and although we’ve reached the point in the narrative when you might expect the members to split off into solo careers, they don’t seem eager to break up the band anytime soon. They’ve happened upon something special.
1D aren’t the only beneficiaries of Cowell’s eye for collaboration. The American version of The X Factor only lasted three seasons, but that was more than enough time for Cowell to align failed contestants Ally Brooke Hernandez, Camila Cabello, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane Hansen, and Lauren Jauregui under the name Fifth Harmony and launch their career together. Like 1D, Fifth Harmony finished third in the competition. Unlike 1D, the ladies took their time releasing an album. In 2013, the year after their victory, they gained more traction releasing low-budget covers on YouTube — not unlike fellow reality show alums Pentatonix — than from any studio single, though their Better Together EP resonated well enough in the teen market to debut at #6 on the albums chart. That project’s “Me & My Girls” was a little too Disney Channel for my tastes, but the triumphant “Miss Movin’ On” was a breakup anthem worthy of early Kelly Clarkson — “Since U Been Gone” with bonus girl-power camaraderie. Last year’s “BO$$,” a Destiny’s Child throwback infectious enough to compete with actual Destiny’s Child songs, sealed it for me: Fifth Harmony are a force. (Never mind that the song’s Michelle Obama shout-out kept it from becoming the radio hit it deserved to be.)
Now, almost three years after they teamed up, Fifth Harmony’s debut LP is out in the world. Reflection, which debuts at #5 this week, cements their status as a group every bit as formidable as 1D — and maybe more versatile. That Destiny’s Child-era R&B sound pops up a few more times on the album even though no song sounds quite like “BO$$.” There’s the gospel-tinged, DeBarge-interpolating slow jam “We Know,” the bouncy title track, and the popping, clicking, all-consuming Tinashe co-write “Them Girls Be Like,” which shines despite lyrical clunkers like “If you’re thirsty, you can’t sip with us” and “hashtag I woke up like this too” (as if the Beyoncé connection needed to be spelled out). I also hear traces of Bey’s old group in “Top Down” and “Worth It,” a pair of bass-booming club tracks that manage to merge two heretofore separate trends, minimal DJ Mustard synth beats and sassy brassy stuff a la “Thrift Shop,” “Problem,” and “Talk Dirty.” (“Top Down,” the album opener, also has kind of a Spice-Girls-doing-“Lady Marmalade” thing going for it.)
So yeah, several late-’90s pop icons loom large over Reflection, but it’s more than retro pastiche. The significant sonic gaps between the aforementioned songs are indicative of how much ground the album covers, and there’s even more to explore: “This Is How We Roll” is gleaming EDM-pop of the highest order (and thankfully isn’t a Florida Georgia Line cover, though I’d pay to hear Fifth Harmony sing that massive chorus). “Sledgehammer” is a synth-pop marvel that hits with the force of its titular instrument. “Suga Mama” and “Everlasting Love” transport me back to Mariah Carey’s golden era — more so than “Like Mariah,” an “Always Be My Baby” flip that’s charming even if its odd blend of synth bass, dancehall vocals, and Tyga doesn’t quite hold together. And if “Body Rock” isn’t as timeless as the gaudy early-’90s jock jams that seem to have inspired it, it still bangs. Even the overstuffed Meghan Trainor collab “Brave Honest Beautiful” — on which they name-check the likes of Madonna, Shakira, and (yes) Beyoncé — is wisely filed away at the end of the deluxe edition tracklist.
The resulting collection is 2015’s first great pop album, a sleek variety show on par with Ariana Grande’s 2014 breakout My Everything. I can imagine it soundtracking high school pool parties all summer long the way many of its spiritual ancestors did when I was a teenager. Yet for all their youth appeal, Fifth Harmony are more adult than ever on Reflection. Like Grande, they could make the leap into full-fledged universal pop stardom if one of these songs would just catch fire at radio. Even if they don’t, their forebears 1D have proven that you don’t need much of a radio presence to tour stadiums in America, and Fifth Harmony have established such a prominent MTV presence — even at a time when MTV doesn’t really play videos — that these girls might not need a certified chart hit to run the world.
While the Week In Pop was on vacation in Mexico last week, “Uptown Funk!” and 1989 continued to rule the charts. And guess what? Now that we’re back, they’re still ruling. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ smash single tops the Hot 100 for a sixth straight week (matching Mars’ six-week reign with “Locked Out Of Heaven”), while Taylor Swift’s blockbuster album leads the Billboard 200 for an eleventh nonconsecutive week (matching Swift’s 11 weeks on top with Fearless in 2008 and 2009). The rich are getting richer! That said, there is some new action elsewhere in each chart’s top 10.
Let’s start on the singles chart. Below “Uptown Funk!” the next four spots are familiar names: Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” Hozier’s “Take Me To Church,” Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” and Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” Then comes a new arrival: Rihanna, Kanye West, & Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds” climbs from #15 to #6. Billboard notes that “FourFiveSeconds” is McCartney’s first top-10 single in 29 years, the longest break between top-10 hits in the chart’s 56 year history. Last time Sir Paul hit the top 10 was with “Spies Like Us” in 1986! Previously Santana had the longest gap, 28 years between “Black Magic Woman” in 1971 and “Smooth” in 1999. “FourFiveSeconds” becomes Rihanna’s 26th top-10 hit, Macca’s 23rd solo top-10 hit (to go along with 34 for the Beatles), and West’s 15th.
The other big mover is Ellie Goulding’s great 50 Shades Of Grey track “Love Me Like You Do,” up from #14 to #9. It’s hard to believe given that Goulding has been such a constant pop radio presence in recent years, but this is only her second US top-10 hit following breakthrough “Lights,” which went to #2 in 2012. (“Burn” topped out at #13, while the Calvin Harris collab “I Need Your Love” peaked at #16.) The rest of the top 10: Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin” at #7, Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” at #8, and Swift’s “Shake It Off” at #10.
Just under Swift on the albums chart is Now 53, which moved 99,000 units (entirely on the strength of sales) to debut at #2. Up next is Sheeran’s x at #3 with 97,000, followed by Grammy king Smith’s In The Lonely Hour at #4. As noted above, Fifth Harmony’s Reflection notched 80,000 units (62,000 from sales) for a #5 debut. Trainor’s Title follows at #6 with 59,000, then it’s Bob Dylan’s new Shadows In The Night — a collection of pop standards once sung by Frank Sinatra — starting at #7 with 50,000 units. Billboard reports that Shadows is Dylan’s 21st top-10 album. Two top-10 mainstays, Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint and Maroon 5’s V, are at #8 and #9 with 48,000 and 47,000 respectively. Rounding out the top 10 is one more debut, Diana Krall’s covers collection Wallflower, with 44,000.
Echosmith – “Bright”
I thought “Cool Kids” was a little on-the-nose, but “Bright” — which really teases out the old-school T-Swift vibes hinted at in Echosmith’s previous hit — is as pleasant a folk-pop ballad as you’ll find. They just might take over the world.
Calvin Harris – “5AM” (Feat. Tinashe)
Popjustice speculates that this leaked Harris/Tinashe collab could be the Harris track Rihanna rejected. It definitely sounds more like a Rihanna song than a Tinashe song.
Ed Sheeran & Rudimental – “Bloodstream”
I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I like yet another Sheeran single. That’s three in a row. I could do without Rudimental’s involvement, which pushes this a little (ahem) “Too Close” to Alex Clare territory for my liking.
Avril Lavigne – “I Could Give You What You Want”
This ain’t it, Avril.
MNEK – “The Rhythm”
That’s more like it, MNEK! This kid might be the best in Britain at recreating that early ’90s pop-house sound.
Stine Bramsen – “Karma Town”
Alphabeat’s singer has been steadily churning out effervescent solo tracks for the past year, and “Karma Town” might be the best of them. It’s very late ’90s Britney Spears, but delivered in the form of a grown-ass woman.
Charlie Puth – “Marvin Gaye” (Feat. Meghan Trainor)
“Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on”? No one involved with this has any shame.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Bieber hasn’t done a single minute of his court-ordered community service. [Complex]
- Bobbi Kristina Brown, the daughter of Bobby Brown and the late Whitney Houston, was taken off life support on the anniversary of her mother’s death. [TMZ]
- A Miley Cyrus short film was pulled from a NYC porn festival. [HuffPo]
- Missy Elliott is back in the studio with Timbaland. [Idolator]