“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” by Sun Kil Moon

Sun Kil Moon were originally called the Red House Painters, till at one point they changed their name on a whim, despite the fact that, at the time, the “new band” had exactly the same lineup and musical style. Now the “band” is basically just the frontman, Mark Kozelek, recording on his own in a Folk singer-songwriter model while still using the name of his old band. What unites all of these incarnations is an extremely conscientious devotion to the Indie Rock subgenre dubbed “Sadcore” or “Slowcore”. As worrying as those names might sound, bands like Cat Power and Low prove it’s possible to do these genres well. The real problem here is that it’s just Kozelek and his acoustic guitar on display here: that kind of minimal presentation only works when the material is strong enough to support it, and songs like this don’t quite cut it. The song is just what the title indicates…a man musing on the increasing age and ultimately impending death of his beloved mother. He seems to think the sadder he makes himself sound, the more moved the audience will be, which shows a fundamental misunderstanding. He certainly conveys his own sadness clearly, but because he only talks about his mother in reference to his own feelings and issues and remains totally wrapped up in how the situation affects him, the audience is never really made to care all that much. When you combine that with the technical songwriting…the song is sloppily rhymed, barely scans, and doesn’t have much of a melody to speak of…the result is sad enough to make for an unpleasant listen, but not sympathetic enough to have any emotional impact. Acoustic Folk music has gotten a bad rap in recent years for supposedly being too mellow and vacuous, but in reality, it’s when it gets this self-indulgent and whiny that it really becomes insufferable.

Verdict: I hate to pick apart a song that was, if nothing else, sincere, but apart from the self-pity there’s really not much here.

“Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy Perry

Katy Perry’s latest album, Witness, has been the kind of disaster that we hadn’t seen a big-name Pop star experience in a long time. Yes, Britney Spears got a similar reception for her 2013 album Britney Jean, but she was much further past her commercial peak than Perry, so the result didn’t seem like nearly as much of a shock. Of all the songs on that album, this lead single seems to be the only one anyone has anything good to say about, but even it received a lukewarm reception. And frankly, I think it’s really rather underrated. If there’s anything pop culture in general could use more of right now, it’s scathing confrontations of its own hypocrisy, and while some found the fact that Perry, the former Number One purveyor of mindless dance tunes, was offering this insight hypocritical in itself, it’s worth noting that she phrases the song’s target as “we” throughout and generally seems to be well aware of her part in this phenomenon. Of course, the truth is that quite a bit of Witness had more interesting lyrical content than Perry’s earlier work. What sets this apart from those other songs on the album is that this one also has an actual tune…it may be presented as an ironic contrast to the subject matter, but this is the kind of danceable Pop tune we’ve come to expect from Perry. It has a bit of a Reggae flavor, which fits well with the guest verse by Bob Marley’s grandson. Like her previous bad album, Prism, Witness can at least say it produced a memorable lead single, and “Chained to the Rhythm” is actually a much more respectable song than “Roar”, since unlike that song, it wasn’t copied from an existing song by another artist and had lyrics that were actually about something.

Verdict: Good.

“The Cure” by Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga released this non-album single in the wake of her ‘comeback’ album Joanne, it met with a pretty scathing reception from her fanbase. And I will acknowledge that there were plenty of great potential singles left on Joanne that could have been released instead, and also that this song does seem like something of a backwards step stylistically, sounding more like a track from one of her first two albums than the Rock- and Country-inflected sound she had used on Joanne. Still, the fact remains that there’s nothing really wrong with the song itself…indeed, if it had been a track on one of those first two albums, it would rank among their highlights. It’s a powerfully intense love song with a superb production and a real sense of inner fire. It’s not the single best song she’s ever released, but it’s still well above average by her standards, and given how many truly awful songs she released during her slump period of 2011-2013, it seems odd that this one attracted so much undue hatred.

Verdict: I’m honestly confused as to what everyone’s so angry about.

“White Iverson” by Post Malone

There’s a particular subgenre of Rap that emerged only a few years ago, one variously termed by different people as “Hook-Rap”, “Cloud Rap”, or (for those who refuse to accept it as a legitimate genre) “Mumble Rap”. It is marked by an emphasis on vocal melody and atmosphere over lyrical content, and is thus widely disliked by more traditional Rap fans who resent it for not following the values they associate with the word “Rap”. Post Malone is particularly disliked by that contingent, partly (let’s be honest) simply because he’s white, and partly because he blends this genre with acoustic Pop-Folk, another genre that the same demographic tends to irrationally despise. This combination has been tried before, as in the early work of Jason Mraz. But Mraz was trying to fuse Pop-Folk with traditional Rap, which made for an interesting but somewhat awkward fit. The Hook Artist/Cloud Rap subgenre is much more suited to that kind of combination, as the elements it emphasizes are essentially the same as those emphasized by an acoustic guitar ballad. And contrary to anything you might have heard, this song is gorgeous, with some of the gentlest, most flowing vocal melody in modern Pop music floating over a plush instrumental cushion of sound. We haven’t heard “Cloud Rap” this lush and melodious since the ballads on Future’s Honest album back in 2014. I will admit that the “Hook Artist” genre, like any genre, has its hierarchies, and there are some people who do it badly (Desiigner comes to mind), but Post Malone is definitely not one of them.

Verdict: This is absolutely beautiful, and it genuinely confuses me how anyone could fail to appreciate it.

“Timmy Turner” by Desiigner

While I have long defended the “Hook Artist”/”Cloud Rap” genre as a valid artistic paradigm, and will continue to do so, I readily admit that, like any other genre, there are people who manage to do it badly, and Desiigner is probably the worst of them to have actually made an impact in the mainstream. He managed to have the genre’s first Number One hit with “Panda”, but that was only because Kanye West sampled that song on a very popular track and then made it almost impossible to legally buy that track, leading to “Panda” becoming popular as the poor’s man substitute. While it was effective in the context of West’s sampling, “Panda” was of little interest as a song in its own right, but it was at least better than this, his attempted follow-up single. The title is apparently a reference to a Nickelodeon cartoon, which is rarely a good sign. The lyrics are idiotic gibberish, even by the admittedly not high standards of the “Hook Artist” genre, and the song doesn’t even have the compensation of a decent vocal melody, which means it fails by the standards of its own genre. Even the background is filled with an endless string of obnoxious noises. In his own way, this guy is just yet more proof that “Hook Artists” are a genre as legitimate as any other, because every genre has one of these idiots who tries to practice it while missing the entire intended point, and he illustrates by contrast what the more legit artists in the field are doing right.

Verdict: Bad.

“An Honest Mistake” by The Bravery

Apart from a few exceptions like the White Stripes and Arcade Fire, the New Wave Revival wing of 2000s Indie Rock tended to be regarded with suspicion at the best of times. Indeed, most Indie snobs at the time would not have acknowledged its most successful crossover band, The Killers, to be an Indie Rock act at all. The most common semi-rational complaint about The Killers was that their sound was too derivative, but while there is a certain irony in the very existence of the term ‘retro-New Wave’, the band at least had some genuine Rock muscle and energy that was very refreshing in the era where most mainstream Rock hits came from the likes of Nickelback. These guys, however, are blatantly attempting to imitate the Killers themselves, which does give them a certain less-than-fresh, copy-of-a-copy quality. Worse, they’re basically The Killers without the Hard Rock edge that made them so compelling in the first place, making them feel less like successors and more like a softened, homogenized substitute. They’re at least more interesting songwriters than the next band to attempt this sound, the Neon Trees, but they still don’t remotely approach the songwriting prowess of the most successful of all post-Killers Indie New-Wave bands, Walk the Moon, so there’s no shortage of better alternatives to these guys. I generally defend the retro-New-Wave crossover hits of the 2000s, but frankly even I can’t think of much of a reason to listen to this band.

Verdict: Perhaps not truly bad, but thoroughly mediocre, which is damnation enough when there are so many better bands in the same style.

“Ultra Marine Blues” by Merzbow

I suppose it’s not all that surprising that most of the major Noise Music acts have hailed from Japan, since one of the genre’s earliest pioneers, Yoko Ono, was Japanese. And it certainly isn’t surprising that of all the Japanese Noise Music artists, this guy has always been the most prominent and the most known to the public. Unfortunately, his name is most often used as a punchline due to the public perception of ‘Noise Music’ in general as little more than a form of glorified auditory torture. If you really want to know what this sounds like, imagine a cross between Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”. It’s not all that surprising that many people fail to appreciate Merzbow, given how misunderstood the two aforementioned works often are in their own right. But if you like heavily textured Noise collages and have a decent tolerance for abrasive sounds, this is one of the most fascinating examples of its kind, with a continually varied texture that resembles the Noise Music equivalent of Wagner’s ‘endless melody’ technique. Just make sure that you turn down the volume before listening to him, as Merzbow has a habit of mastering the volume on his albums several times higher than is standard with all other artists, and if you listen to him on top volume you’ll either go deaf or get arrested (depending on whether or not you’re wearing headphones at the time).

Verdict: An acquired taste, admittedly, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

“Not a Pretty Girl” by Ani Difranco

No-one in the Indie scene disputes Ani Difranco’s crucial historical importance…she did essentially invent the Indie Folk genre, after all…but many mainstream listeners find her in-your-face political soapboxing actively annoying. Here’s the thing, though…she was a late-in-life protege of the legendary Pete Seeger, so she has genuine roots in the true Classic Folk tradition. And Folk songs have been getting blatantly political since the days of the Almanac Singers, so it’s a little late to declare that unacceptable now. Difranco essentially writes modern versions of Sixties protest songs, and her actual writing is good enough to deserve respect regardless of whether you agree with her opinions. This song, the title track of her first true masterpiece album, offers a relatively easy-to-accept form of her political positions, but at the same time it serves as a near-perfect summation of her overall credo. It also demonstrates the thing that makes Difranco such a great artist regardless of her politics…this woman is a stunningly penetrating lyricist, and this song contains some of her most powerful and intelligent turns of phrase. It actually bears a strong resemblance in its lyrical subject matter to Sara Bareilles’ 2010 hit “King of Anything”, and while the latter song is prettier from a purely musical perspective, I can’t help but suspect that Bareilles was at least somewhat inspired by this song when she wrote it.

Verdict: Good.

“Panda Panda Panda” by Deerhoof

This song is pretty much the pinnacle of the Twee Pop movement. In purely musical terms, it’s actually quite sophisticated, with very textured Noise-Pop instrumentation. The controversy over the song’s quality is rooted in the fact that the song’s actual lyrics consist almost entirely of the word “Panda” being repeated to a simplistic, nursery-rhyme-like melody. But the best Twee Pop is the most sincere in its whimsy and the least tainted by irony. I can’t say for sure if Deerhoof intended to be ironic when they wrote this, but it certainly doesn’t come off that way. This song has a disarmingly ingenuous feel to it, and the continuous undercurrent of complex Noise-Pop keeps it from devolving into complete inanity. As for the chorus itself, it’s almost impossible to repeat the same word ad infinitum without becoming annoying, but damned if these guys didn’t pull it off. Say what you will about it, this is one the catchiest choruses in all of Indie Rock (maybe the catchiest if you don’t count Weezer as Indie), and the sheer daring of its simplicity keeps it from coming off as uninspired pablum like so many of the mainstream Pop earworms of that era.

Verdict: Good.

“Why Can’t I?” by Liz Phair

Liz Phair did eventually topple from her throne as the Queen of Indie Pop (her 2010 album Funstyle in particular basically destroyed her career and is even worse than that makes it sound). That said, her prime was much longer than most Indie snobs would care to admit, and her first four albums still constitute some of the greatest music the genre ever produced. This song was her only real crossover hit on the Pop charts, and as such is viewed with surprising hostility by some old-school Indie snobs despite it providing virtually no rational grounds for objection. It’s a beautiful, sweet ballad about the first jittery thrill of falling in love, admittedly more Pop-friendly than her earlier stuff but still with enough of a delicate touch to maintain its Indie flavor. The Indie Rock crossover hits of the 2000s and the subgenres that tended to produce them were generally viewed with a measure of suspicion back in that decade, and seeing one of Indie Rock’s all-time icons produce one would have been tantamount to treason in the eyes of many Indie pundits back then. But today, when Indie music crossing over to the Pop charts is such a common occurrence, there really is no reason to hold such outdated attitudes against this song anymore. Indeed, despite the accusations of the Indie snobs, Liz Phair never sold out (I’m not sure what the Funstyle album actually was, but it was way too audience-unfriendly to qualify as a sellout move).

Verdict: One of the best Indie Rock crossover hits of the decade, right up there with “New Slang” and “Float On”.