“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.

“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.

“I Hope” by Gabby Barrett

Sung by a lesser Carrie Underwood clone from the Reality TV circuit, this song was apparently intended to be another entry in the woman-scorned revenge-fantasy field. Now that field has given us quite a few Country classics over the past twenty years or so (among other things, it provisioned most of Miranda Lambert’s early career), and it has also produced a few duds here and there, most infamously Carrie Underwood’s embarrassing “Before He Cheats”. However, I’m not sure this particular genre modeled has ever been executed quite as badly as it is here.

I won’t beat around the bush here…this is the worst hit song of 2020. Yes, even the most popular pick for that title, Justin Bieber’s “Yummy”, doesn’t match the special brand of horrible on display here. This song consists of the singer outlining in great detail the love and happiness she hopes her ex-lover will find with his next partner…and then how “I hope she cheats, like you did on me”. Then, not to be satisfied at that, she speaks of her hopes that they will reconcile, re-ignite their spark, put the past behind them,  and become truly happy again…and then, proclaims that “I hope she cheats” once again.

Now, revenge-fantasy songs of this sort are supposed to go over-the-top (Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene” ends with the singer gunning down her ex in the street, after all), but the more personal and emotional nature of this song’s imagined revenge, along with the sheer level of thought and detail the singer has apparently put into this scenario, comes off as petty and horribly mean-spirited rather than triumphant and empowering.

Also, there’s a reason most songs of this type phrase themselves as direct action, even if it’s only within a fantasy setting. In contrast, this song is, as the title suggests, nothing but a particularly ugly exercise in wishful thinking. For all the singer’s vitriol, she has no means to actually make these things happen to this person and no intention of trying to do anything. She merely wants them to suffer, which makes the song come across as deeply pathetic on top of all its other problems.

This song actually bears a certain resemblance to one of the worst songs of all time, Country or otherwise, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. That song, after all, was also an invocation of ugly, impotent hatred toward an unfaithful partner, and given that “Ruby” is one of the most widely despised song in all of Country music, it’s not exactly the kind of company any song should want to keep.

Even if you’re feeling malicious enough to enjoy a brutal revenge fantasy (and let’s be honest…we all go through times in our lives when we feel that way, so I don’t judge), it seems unlikely that this song would do anything but make you even more depressed and miserable. It’s certainly vindictive, but it offers no vindication…just an invitation to wallow in the most degrading kind of petty adolescent bitterness. That, above all else, is why I call this the worst hit song of 2020. (And yes, I am aware of the duet “remix” version with Charlie Puth…who should have been above this kind of material, by the way…but since this song’s sentiment makes absolutely no sense as a duet, that version just manages to be ugly, pathetic and confusing).

Verdict: It’s the worst song of the past year. That pretty much says it all right there.

“Yummy” by Justin Bieber

Between 2015 and 2017, Justin Bieber had evolved from ‘the worst Pop star in the known universe’ to ‘kinda-sorta-almost-okay-ish-if-you-squint-at-him-a-little-bit’. Well, his most recent material definitely represents a return to form…in the sense that it plummets right back to the rock-bottom awfulness of his pre-2015 work. This song is probably the most notorious among those releases, and indeed, it’s hard to think of a more abjectly bad song in recent memory.

That the lyrics are terrible could be gleaned from the song’s title alone, but it goes beyond that: virtually every word choice in this lyric is profoundly wrong. It’s like a Train song, but without any of the off-the-wall insanity that at least makes their stuff entertainingly bad.

On top of that, Bieber’s brief flirtation with being remotely tolerable came about mostly because the EDM style he was dabbling in at the time was as good a fit for his terrible singing voice and utter lack of personality as any genre was going to be; it gave them an opportunity to process his voice into something vaguely listenable, and the fact that he sounded like an emotionless robot could be passed off as a stylistic choice.

But of all the genres I could imagine Bieber trying to pull off, Hook-Rap is probably the absolute least credible choice for him. He sounds ridiculous trying to be soulful, and his weak vocals are a bigger liability than they’ve been in years. We’ve seen a lot of Pop stars embarrass themselves over the course the last ten years, but rarely in this abject and humiliating a manner.

Verdict: You have to ask?

“Wap” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion

Cardi B may be listed as the lead artist on this track, but make no mistake, this is really a Megan Thee Stallion song. Cardi B was never an important talent, but she had the decency on her early singles to use borrowed hook-rap flows, colorful guest artists, or dramatic subject matter to camouflage her lack of lyrical ability. Now she has officially jumped on the Megan Thee Stallion bandwagon, which consists of being slightly more vulgar than popular music normally is at the moment and passing that off as a substitute for content or personality.

Now, I’m not opposed to women using their sexuality for empowerment purposes…longtime readers will recall my praise of Christina Aguilera’s Stripped and Beyonce’s self-titled album for that very thing…and, as a long time defender of Eminem, I’m obviously not opposed to shock humor either. But there is neither humor nor empowerment to be found here, nor anything else of particular interest…just two mediocre female rappers using blunt sexual language that barely even qualifies as shocking at this point.

I’m just saying that this is exactly the kind of thing Lil Kim specialized in back in the day, and you’ll note that the few who still remember her today do so more with scorn and dismissal than anything else. I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised if Megan Thee Stallion winds up getting a similar legacy once her time in the spotlight is over.

Verdict: Calling this ‘bad’ is giving it a level of attention it doesn’t really deserve; it’s just uninteresting and forgettable.