“All the Right Reasons” by Nickelback

You know, I never really think I fully got the level of hatred this band received until I heard this album in full. Granted, I was already aware that between their sludgy, viscerally ugly musical sound, their songwriting that vacillates between insufferable whining angst and meatheaded party songs, their bizarre aptitude for writing some of the worst lyrics in all of popular music, and the fact that their lead singer sounds like he has a bad case of strep-throat, that they were musicians of an exceptionally poor quality. But I don’t think I ever understood why they were routinely touted as the Worst Band of All Time until I experienced the sheer concentrated horror that is this album. In reality, they are not the worst band of all time (that prize probably goes to Grindcore band Anal Cunt…at least Nickelback have never, to the best of my knowledge, written a song gloating about a child’s death), but the fact that they achieved the level of mainstream success that they did is still absolutely astounding in all the wrong ways.

You see, what is most fascinating (and horrifying) about this album is that it is in the surprisingly tiny category of albums that have sold over ten million copies (generally referred to as the Diamond certification, although due to the arbitrary regulations of the industry, only about two-thirds of those albums are officially certified as thus). There are other bad albums that have made the ‘Diamond’ category (Creed’s Human Clay and Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water come to mind, as does Eminem’s Encore), but nothing that even approaches this album in terms of sheer rock-bottom awfulness.

You see, this is not only Nickelback’s most successful album, but also their worst one. Even Nickelback’s other Diamond-selling album, their mainstream breakthrough Silver Side Up, might as well be a masterpiece compared to this atrocity. The same is true of their follow-up to that album, The Long Road…at that point they were in their larval stage of awfulness, not much more than just another whiny Post-Grunge sludge-rock band (believe me, there was no shortage of them at the time). Their follow-up to this album, Dark Horse, was arguably just as bad if not worse in terms of songwriting, but it also had legendary producer Mutt Lange doing his damnedest to make their music into something listenable. And their albums from the 2010s are frankly little more than Bro-Country without the twang, and they don’t even have the distinction of being the worst Bro-Country-esque albums released in that decade.

This album, on the other hand, almost defies description. For starters, it contains what are probably the two worst hit songs of the entire 2000s decade (a dubious prize that I probably don’t have to tell you posed some astronomical competition),”Photograph” and “If Everyone Cared”. The biggest problem with “Photograph” is its complete lack of a tune…Nickelback’s earlier songs may have been sludgy and unpleasant, but at least they had discernible melodies. Chad Kroeger’s voice also sounds about the worst it has ever sounded here, making the horrible music even more unlistenable. On top of that, the lyrics are, to be frank, incredibly stupid, a bunch of directionless minutiae that the singer apparently remembers fondly but never manages to make remotely interesting to the audience.

“If Everyone Cared” might be even worse. This song was the result of Nickelback’s attempt to write a revolutionary anthem of change without actually saying anything controversial, resulting in what may be the most nakedly insincere collection of empty platitudes in all of Rock. A four-minute song that says absolutely nothing is kind of a perverse achievement to begin with, but to try to pass off such a song as profound and inspirational is almost unthinkable. This is basically Nickelback’s version of “Imagine”, a comparison that says more about the band’s awfulness than even its most violent detractors could possibly come up with. “Photograph” is arguably more incompetent, but this song shows such an unutterable contempt for their own audience that it is actually offensive.

And the true horror of the situation is that neither of these are even close to being the worst songs on this album: the album’s first two tracks, the gratuitously unpleasant stalker song “Follow You Home” and the absolutely disgusting “Fight For All the Wrong Reasons” are far worse than any of the seven radio hits this album produced. (Yes, this album had seven singles, and all of them were apparently played heavily on Rock stations at the time. I just have to be thankful that I only listened to showtunes back when this band was at its peak).

Then, of course, there’s the soppy, overwrought ballad “Savin’ Me”. Now, Nickelback have an annoying habit of occasionally putting brief fragments of oddly arresting melody into songs that are, in every other respect, complete dumpster fires. On “Someday”, the single from their album prior to this one, it was in the pre-chorus (“Nothing’s wrong, just as long as you know that someday I will”). On “Savin’ Me”, it’s the second half of the chorus itself, about three seconds of striking melody which even Chad Kroeger’s singing can’t completely obscure. I suppose we should greet these occasional infinitesimal flashes of actual melody as a relief, but seeing them wasted on such terrible songs is so annoying that it’s almost worse than not having them there at all.

The rest of the album is filled out by “Animals” (probably the worst song ever written about statutory rape, and that‘s a prize no-one should want to win), “Far Away” (a generic ballad that would merely be boring if not for Kroeger’s intolerable vocals), and the dull, half-written album-filler tracks “Next Contestant” and “Someone That You’re With”. The one song on this album that people are most inclined to defend is “Side of a Bullet”, which was written about the murder of Dimebag Darrell, a member of the legendary Metal band Pantera. I’m sure the band had worthy intentions for writing it, but just because the subject is deep doesn’t mean the song is. It’s a cartoonish, absurdly melodramatic near-parody highly reminiscent of their attempt to write about domestic abuse a few albums back with “Never Again”, and it looks particularly bad given that the band Machine Head would release an infinitely better song about the same subject with “Aesthetics of Hate”.

And now we come to the album’s closing track and probably its biggest hit, “Rockstar”. To be honest, I will admit to having a tiny bit of a soft spot for this particular song. Maybe it’s only in comparison to the band’s other work that it starts to look good,  but for what it’s worth, this is still about the best song Nickelback ever recorded: if you go to well enough times (and God help us, they did), you’re eventually going to come up with something at least vaguely redeemable if only by sheer luck. I’d even go so far as to say that the level of hatred this song receives (Wikipedia includes it prominently on its sourced list of “Songs or music considered the worst”) probably boils down to its being the most recognizable hit by a widely reviled band more than the quality of the song itself.  Granted, the self-consciously retro-rock tune is only marginally better than their usual stuff, and we still have to deal with Chad Kroeger’s unpleasant rasp of a voice, but  the lyrics are surprisingly sharp and have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and eye for detail that makes them much more interesting than your typical catalogue of luxury cliches. And while closing out ten tracks of self-flagellating angst with a party song does do a lot to neutralize any perceived sincerity those songs might have had, it stills works better here than the same strategy worked on their last album with “See You At the Show”.

Still, even with one almost-okay track at the very end of the album, this is without question the absolute worst album to ever “Go Diamond”. I can’t imagine why any sane person would buy this, but I guess it’s not a surprise in at least one sense: Nickelback are definitely an album band. Indeed, their singles are virtually indistinguishable from their album tracks. I would even go so far as  to say that they maintain a more consistent level of quality across the board than almost any other band I know, and even if that level happens to be “rock-bottom terrible”, I suppose I can see why anyone weird enough to like this garbage would invest in a full album of it. I just wish I could pretend there weren’t over ten million of those people in the world.

“Dynamite” by BTS

BTS are basically the Korean equivalent of the Beatles—not necessarily in stature (at least not yet, though we’ll see what happens in another ten years), but in their combination of a boy-band image and sophisticated, almost arthouse-level musical experimentation. This song, despite being their biggest hit, is often dismissed as catchy-but-shallow radio filler, with even some of the group’s fans seeming to almost resent its success and implying it was only such a big hit because the lyrics were entirely in English.

Well, great Pop uptunes have always been easy to take for granted. Great ballads get all the outpourings of adoration they deserve, but the artistry that goes into even the most outstanding upbeat, “fun” Pop music tends to be largely ignored…look at “Uptown Funk” or, going a few decades further back, the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. And this is yet another example of that all-too-common phenomenon.

The truth is that this is a fantastic song, perfectly crafted and balanced and infused with a genuine sense of life-affirming joy that, if I may say so, was particularly needed at the time that the song came out. Granted, the song does lose some of its impact when heard simply as a single (as the climax of the sorrow-to-ecstasy crescendo that is the Be album, its joy becomes almost transcendent), but that’s true of almost any song from an album-oriented act like BTS. At any rate, this is a masterful achievement that deserves far more respect than it has ever gotten from either the critics or the group’s own fans, and it earned every bit of its success.

Verdict: I’m not arguing that this is the absolute best song the group ever wrote…that’s a title with a hefty amount of competition…but I do think its status as their biggest hit to date was earned by merit rather than simply by breaking the language barrier.

“Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo

For the first month or so after this song’s release, it was such a massive hit on the charts (apparently being more than twice as big as its closest runner-up in terms of chart criteria) that it seemed to baffle some people as to…well, why? It’s a very fine song, but there were plenty of songs just as good or better in the past year that didn’t have this kind of runaway success. It isn’t any kind of obvious game-changing innovation, either…indeed, at first glance it doesn’t seem all that unique.

Some credit the song’s popularity to the celebrity love triangle that supposedly existed at one point between Rodrigo, her TV co-star Joshua Bassett, and Pop seminame Sabrina Carpenter, and that might or might not have been the intended subject of the song. But frankly, when you’re as talented as Olivia Rodrigo and you’re in a songwriting feud with fifth-rate talents like Bassett and Carpenter, the result is less a “feud” and more a couple of music-business bottomfeeders trying to piggyback off any perceived association with your big hit.

The real reason this song blew up so big is subtler and more complicated. You see, the prevailing style of Pop music these days is a particular brand of sophisticated, atmospheric, lyrically complex quasi-Indie Pop that was pioneered by Lana Del Rey and Lorde and propagated with such acts as Halsey and (in a more R&B-influenced variant) H.E.R. Even Taylor Swift has adopted this style for her last two albums of new material.

The only problem is that while this style has become the prevailing brand of Pop music for the last eight years, it is by its nature too intellectual and complex for quite a bit of the Pop music market, particularly the youth market. Olivia Rodrigo’s great achievement was to distill that style into a simple enough form that the teen and preteen market could comprehend it. In other words, Rodrigo is basically the Jewel to the above-mentioned artists’ Tori Amos.

This isn’t the first time that strategy has been tried, of course, but unlike, to quote one infamous example, Daya, Rodrigo managed to do it while still maintaining enough of the genre’s introspection and sensitivity to retain its fundamental appeal. And since we haven’t had a song with that winning combination since Lorde released “Royals” back in late 2013, it’s hardly surprising that it took off the way it did.

Verdict: Obviously quite a bit of this song’s popularity is the result of sheer serendipity, but it really is a lovely and touching song in its own right, so I’m certainly not complaining.