“Mooo!” by Doja Cat

I’ve been pretty harsh on the subject of female singer/rapper Doja Cat in the past, and her association with notorious sociopath Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald has never been the primary reason (it didn’t exactly raise my opinion of her, but I’ve managed to get past worse faults in artists if their music was good). And I will admit that her latest album, Planet Her, marks a significant improvement in her work, with interesting-sounding production and some surprisingly good Rap lyrics.

That said, none of that makes the puerile viral hits she built her career on any less embarrassing. If I still was willing to call attention to Kesha’s appalling early work after a masterpiece like Rainbow, you better believe I’m not letting Doja Cat off the hook for her earlier stuff just because she’s released a decent album.

Now, “Say So” was the biggest of her viral hits, and is quite terrible in its own way, but there’s only so many ways to say “irritatingly perky oversexualized formula Pop”. This song, on the other hand, is one of those tracks so stupid you can barely believe they exist in the first place, and thus provides much more material for a review. It takes the joke in Kelis’ “Milkshake” (which it even samples towards the end) to its illogical extreme, and contains some of the worst puns and most disgusting analogies for sex I’ve ever heard in my nine years of covering the Pop charts. Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” sounds intelligent next to this horror.

The song is also mind-numbingly repetitive. While this winds up taking a backseat to the lyrical problems just because those problems are so extreme, this is still actually worse than even the worst of the “repetitive chorus” songs from back when that was a common phenomenon. This is mostly because even “A Milli”, “Imma Be”, and “Whip My Hair” at least weren’t endlessly repeating a phrase as stupid as “Bitch, I’m a cow”. I haven’t heard an artist open themselves up to unintentional ridicule this blatantly since David Cassidy recorded “I Am a Clown”.

Verdict: This is quite literally one of the worst songs I have ever heard.

“Songbird” by Kenny G

Music meant to be played as half-conscious background music isn’t necessarily always a bad thing…there are plenty of legit acts in Ambient Music and the higher reaches of the New Age Music genre. But there’s a fine line between Ambiance and Muzak, and Kenny G tends to fall on the wrong side of it.

That said, this, his one big hits on the Pop charts, was actually nowhere near as bad as it’s now made out to be. That he can do worse is obvious (anyone who’s heard his butchering of the hook to “My Heart Will Go On” knows that), but the truth is that, at the time this was recorded, he hadn’t yet completely sold out.

At this point, he was essentially a non-vocal version of Barry Manilow. This song is admittedly far less interesting than Manilow’s work (partly because the most interesting thing about Manilow was his gifts as a vocalist), but the melody is pretty and actually rather poignant: if it’s still essentially background music, it’s at least background music that has the decency to sound sad.

And he would continue more or less in this vein for two more albums, Silhouette and Breathless. It wasn’t until his first Christmas album in the mid-Nineties that he gave up even trying to evoke any emotion in his music and became the utterly soulless Muzak purveyor we all know and hate today.

Verdict: This song, and the other material from Kenny G’s early albums, aren’t by any means great, but they’re still a cut above his later work, and at least qualify for the title of “not terrible”.

“Lucid Dreams” and “Wishing Well” by Juicewrld

I make it a point not to speak ill of the recently dead, but now that a decent grace period has passed, I can say that I had mixed feelings about the late Juicewrld’s music. He did have an impressive gift for vocal melody, and I can see why “Lucid Dreams” was his biggest hit…it features a sample of Sting’s atmospheric Soft Rock classic “Shape of My Heart”, and Juicewrld does offer a genuinely interesting variation on the original melody.

Unfortunately, at the time that song was recorded, he was (to put it bluntly) an extremely poor lyricist, which severely hampered his attempts to be taken seriously. Now, I’m aware that Hook-Rap isn’t really a lyric-driven genre, but we’re not talking about standard Rap cliches, or even random stream-of-consciousness non-sequiturs in the Young Thug vein. We’re talking about a melodramatic, self-pitying, and frankly rather mean-spirited rant about the world in general and the gender of women in particular. Even in the Rap field, the misogyny rarely gets this personal, and since Juicewrld isn’t a shock-rapper like Eminem, all this ugly sentiment seems to have been intended straightforwardly.

As far the Hook-Rap subgenre recently dubbed “Emo-Rap” goes, if the late XXXtentacion was the equivalent of My Chemical Romance with their ambitious concepts and take-no-prisoners personal introspection, then Juicewrld at this point was more the equivalent of bands like Simple Plan and Good Charlotte, coming off in his writing like a self-involved, insufferably melodramatic teenager who thinks he invented suffering. I have no real way of knowing if this reflected his personality in any way or if he just wasn’t very good at communicating through lyrics, but either way, the resulting effect makes his early work, for all its melodic inventiveness, kind of unpleasant.

I actually expect the latter is true, however, because after Juicewrld’s untimely death, the Legends Never Die album came out and changed the minds of nearly all of his previous detractors, including me. Tragically, it seems that he died when he was just coming into his own as a Rapper. “Wishing Well”, the lead single and arguable highlight of that posthumous album, shows the same impressive gift for melody as Juicewrld’s earlier material, but jumps light-years ahead in terms of lyrical depth and profundity.

With some of the most perfectly chosen words ever harnessed to express true despair, this song is a magnificent achievement that, like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, takes on a particularly intense power and poignancy because it was essentially the final statement of a human being who already seemed to know their self-destructive behavior was about to catch up to them to a fatal degree.

Verdict: For “Lucid Dreams”, not totally without redeeming qualities, but not precisely good, either. For “Wishing Well”…this is one of the finest Hook-Rap songs in the entire genre, and one of the best Rap songs of any kind from the last ten years, and it makes me weep for what might have been if this artist had lived.

“Happier” by Marshmello and Bastille

EDM producer Christopher Comstock, a.k.a. Marshmello, takes a lot of crap for his sugary, hyperactive producing style, but the guy does have his moments. His specialty is bringing tinges of euphoria to songs that are otherwise powerful expressions of deeply felt sorrow, and when he’s able to stick to that formula, he’s actually quite effective.

This song, his biggest hit to date, is a perfect example of that emotional balancing act. It’s a collaboration with former Indie Rock band Bastille, who are known for their richly emotional songs such as “Pompeii”, and it would actually be quite depressing if not for the production here. Bastille were already very much an Electropop band, so working with an EDM producer doesn’t really depart from their usual sound all that much, but Marshmello’s distinctive production style manages to make this song feel very different from Bastille’s work under their own banner.

This same basic exchange holds true for all of Marshmello’s more respectable hits. His breakthrough hit, the striking “Wolves”, contrasts Selena Gomez’s haunting descriptions of romantic obsession in the foreground with his fizzing, tingling beats as a backdrop to create one of the most intoxicating hits of Gomez’s career, and he adds the necessary overtones of hope and optimism to Halsey’s “Be Kind” and Demi Lovato’s “Okay Not To Be Okay”.

The problem with Marshmello’s work, and the thing that has brought him the ill repute that he has received, if that if you put him on his own on an instrumental track, or with a collaborator who is incapable of making that intense dramatic contrast, his sugar-high production style just sounds frivolous and saccharine. And I’m sad to say that scenario has happened more than a few times over the course of his career: a lot of his singles really do come across as bland and inane, and his albums, which mostly consist of him laying down instrumentals with no collaborators at all, are of virtually no interest whatsoever.

But the guy does have a certain effectiveness when he stays in the appropriate paradigm, and the people who dismiss him altogether aren’t being fair to him. It reminds me of not entirely undeserved but greatly exaggerated flack that the last EDM superstars in this field, the Chainsmokers, tended to receive, and say what you will about Comstock, at least he’s been wise enough never to attempt to do his own singing.

Verdict: Good.

“You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift

This was one of the biggest hits from Swift’s Grammy-winning sophomore album Fearless, which ranks as her first real masterpiece and had a major role in revitalizing the Pop album as an art form. This is also the song that initially led this author into his current devotion to Ms. Swift’s music: I’m not ashamed to admit that the thing that first drew my interest to her was when this song was being played over a restaurant’s sound system and I caught a particular succinct and skillful bit of character-establishing shorthand in the space of two lines: “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts”.

The original recording was admittedly less than perfect, though. The Pop-Country production was very ‘of its time’, shall we say: it sounds seriously dated today, and even at the time it gave this fresh-faced, innocent love song more of a homogenized ‘bubblegum’ feel than it needed, resulting in a lot of critics both professional and amateur underestimating its deceptively sophisticated songwriting for many years.

The song’s other problem was that Swift hadn’t really come into her own as a vocalist at the time it was originally recorded, and her performance can admittedly be a little shrill in places.

Fortunately, both problems have been neatly solved on the recent re-recording of the Fearless album. They gave this song a new, more sophisticated production that flatters its songwriting style much more and seems likely to age better as well, and Swift’s vocals have immensely improved during the intervening years, leading to a much smoother and more subtle vocal performances with none of the shriller notes heard on the original recording.

In short, any plausible complaint that could be made about the original song has been corrected by the new recording. Along with the autobiographical retrospective “Fifteen”, this is probably the song that has gained the most from the re-recording process, and it seems likely to command far more respect from the critical community in the future.

Verdict: Extremely good even in the original version, but damned near perfect on the re-recording.

“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.