“Fight Song” by Rachel Platten

I gave this song something of a pass while it was actually a hit, but two things have made me reconsider that generosity in the meantime. One was that I realized that this its very presence essentially kept Kelly Clarkson’s “Invincible”, a vastly superior song with almost exactly the same concept, off the charts in 2015. The second is that I finally heard the actual album from which this song was drawn, and realized as a result how intolerable this song really is when surrounded by eleven other songs just like it.

The best way I can describe Platten’s style is ‘Debbie Boone on steroids”: hackneyed, saccharine, nauseatingly faux-inspirational, and above all else loud. The cliche-ridden lyrics and weak rhymes do tend to sound worse and worse with every repeat hearing, but the real problem is the song’s overblown bombast with no actual content or depth to back it up. Platten is clearly trying to be Kelly Clarkson, but even when Clarkson dabbles in cliche (as on “Mr. Know-It-All” or “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You”)), the music itself has an intensity and power that this burst of empty noise doesn’t even approach.

This isn’t the worst song on Platten’s album that year (her duet with Andy Grammer, the point-blank unlistenable “Hey, Hey, Hallelujah”, almost manages to make this one look like some kind of classic), but it’s still a warmed-over imitation of a song model that had already been done better by just about every major Pop artist four years before this song was even released.

Verdict: Bad.

“Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood

I blame the existence of this song, which was one of the two massive clinkers (along with “Jesus Take the Wheel”) that sabotaged Underwood’s reputation early on, primarily on Nashville record executives trying to create a tamer version of early Miranda Lambert. You see, the year before they released this turd, Lambert had come out with her debut album and its title track, “Kerosene”. This was before Lambert really went mainstream even in the Country sphere, but the song had gotten a lot of attention from those who had heard it for being the kind of blazing woman-scorned Country-Rock scorcher that had never been seen before in the Country genre at the time.

The record executives clearly wanted to harness this new genre model, but they felt the need to tone down the song’s sheer violent rage when they made their copy, and that was their mistake. If you take “Before He Cheats” literally, it comes across as the stupidest attempt at revenge ever conceived: infidelity isn’t something you can go to jail for, but vandalism is, and according to the lyrics, she literally signed her crime by “Carv(ing) her name into his leather seats”. Meanwhile, if you take it as an over-the-top revenge fantasy, then frankly it’s pretty lame. You fucked up his car. Big friggin’ whoop. “Kerosene” climaxes with Lambert gunning down her cheating ex and his new girl in the street…that’s how you do a revenge fantasy.

Verdict: Even if this wasn’t an absolutely moronic song (which it is), the very existence of “Kerosene” makes checking it out a complete waste of your time.

“One Foot” by Walk the Moon

I will admit that Walk the Moon’s third album did constitute something of a sellout move. After the phenomenal success of their crossover single “Shut Up and Dance”, they seem to have decided to reinvent themselves as a straight-up Pop act, and this album find them abandoning their Indie roots for the same stale, prepackaged Pop-Rock sound used by modern Maroon 5 and their imitators such as the reunited Jonas Brothers.

However, while this sound is admittedly far less interesting than the retro-New-Wave they were making on their first two albums, there is still something vital to remember…Nicholas Pettrica, the band’s frontman and principle songwriter, is an absolutely brilliant songwriting talent. This is the guy who wrote “Anna Sun”, “Shut Up and Dance”, and “Different Colors”, and his gifts didn’t evaporate just because the group changed its sound.

This is actually a rather fascinating demonstration of what Maroon 5’s style would be capable of in the hands of a first-rate songwriter, as it has that same homogenized Pop/EDM-masquerading-as-Rock sound, but also features a terrific tune and intelligent, penetrating lyrics. Granted, the rest of their third album was less interesting, but this lead single proves that they’ve still got the potential to make something of themselves in this new field.

Verdict: Good.

“St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr

John Parr likes to tell the sad story about how he was unfairly muscled out of the music business, but he seems oblivious to the reason that happened in the first place…that reason being that he isn’t any good. Styx may have been the general poster child for bad Arena Rock, but at least Styx had their own style. On his embarrassing debut album, John Parr was trying to be Foreigner (and failing badly, I might add). On his songwriting gigs for Meat Loaf, he was of course trying to be Jim Steinman, and let’s just say that as poor man’s Jim Steinman substitutes go, this guy is no Desmond Child.

On this, his only real hit of any stature, he’s clearly trying to be Survivor…specifically, “Eye of the Tiger”. Leaving aside the fact that the movie he wrote this for is a Brat Pack film and not a sports movie, this song doesn’t even approach the lean, focused intensity that has made “Eye of the Tiger” so enduring.

The melody and production are incredibly cheesy, the lyrics are so hyperbolic and self-consciously faux-inspirational that they sound like a parody, and Parr’s wailing vocals are reminiscent of Michael Bolton as his absolute worst, except for the fact that Parr actually has a much less interesting voice. It says something that this is still probably the best thing Parr ever recorded…this is what this idiot sounds like on a good day, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Verdict: I guess you could make a case for this on the grounds of enjoyably bad Eighties retro-camp (although even that excuse doesn’t really work for any of Parr’s other songs), but it’s not ‘good’ by any other standard.

“Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar

This is the 1920s’ equivalent of the kind of thing that would wind up in Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs, but because of its advanced age it is perceived for some reason to have some kind of vaguely-defined distinguished pedigree. As a result, critics (or at least the older ones) tend to give it much more leeway than similar annoying Pop tunes from the Sixties onward, or even equivalent songs from the Fifties such as “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” or “Oh, My Pa-Pa!”.

But the sad truth is, it’s not really a different phenomenon…there was puerile, overexposed Pop music in that era too. Yes, Vincent Youmans’ melody is both pretty and memorable, but this song is every bit as cloying as Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey”, and just as inane as Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”, and the catchy melody only makes those qualities more insidious.

I honestly don’t see why people today can’t acknowledge this song for the insipid trash that it is; people at the time certainly had no trouble doing so (James Thurber devoted an entire chapter of his book Further Fables of Our Time to mocking it). The musical from which this song originally came, No, No, Nanette, actually contains a number of good songs. This is not one of them.

Verdict: Bad.

“Silent Night” by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr

This song is a special case…it’s the only Christmas hymn that routinely gets included on non-Christmas albums, to the point where Barbra Streisand’s A Happening In Central Park live album, which was recorded in June, contains a rendition of it. This is particular impressive given how massively overexposed all the famous Christmas songs are…it’s basically people saying “Not only didn’t we get sick of this song at Christmas, we’re so not sick of it we’re going to trot it out in Midsummer”.

It’s hard to say why this song has such special status, but it might be because it offers such a great opportunity to the performer. When warbled out by a generic band of carolers, it’s actually not nearly as effective a showcase for that kind of singing as “Oh Holy Night” or “Angels We Have Heard On High”, but give it to a talented solo singer or an extremely well-trained choir who can really create a mood of hushed peace, and you’ve got magic on your hands.

Verdict: Good.

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

As you might have picked up on from my entries this holiday season, I have little patience for most Christmas-themed novelty music. This, however, in spite of being as inane as anything else in the genre, is an enormous cut above most of its peers in overall quality. Why? Because even on throwaway musical trifles like this, Sir Paul’s work drips melody almost automatically, the way Irving Berlin used to do. As a result, this song has probably the best melody in the history of Christmas novelty music…hell, many of the Christmas hymns don’t have melodies this good…and that goes a long, long way toward making its repetitive shallowness palatable.

Verdict: A very minor item in the Paul McCartney canon, but still about as good as you’re ever going to get from a holiday novelty song.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie

This song is a special kind of awful, even by shitty Christmas novelty song standards. The tune is one of the genre’s most annoying, ultra-simplistic, infuriatingly perky and a brainslug-level earworm, but there’s a deeper problem with the song besides its surface obnoxiousness.

Despite being heard far too often in media ostensibly intended for adults such as mainstream radio stations and shopping establishments, this is for the most part a children’s song, and it instills in children one of the worst messages you could teach them. Essentially, it’s saying, “Be good, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because life will magically reward you for your goodness”. I’ll grant you that mindset is an inherent problem with the Santa Claus mythos in general, but rarely is it spelled out as baldly as it is in this song.

This may seem harmless, except that a surprising number of people grow up without ever growing out of this mindset…you’ll notice that there are several major branches of organized religion that essentially promise the same thing using the exact same incentives. So if you think about it, a lot of the most serious problems of the modern world could conceivably be traced back to childhood exposure to this particular song. I think that in itself is enough to seal the deal on a negative verdict.

Verdict: This song is garbage.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland

Hugh Martin and (possibly) Ralph Blane (the record has become somewhat unclear regarding Blaine’s contribution to the songs by this supposed songwriting team) may have written this immortal holiday classic for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, but Judy Garland pretty much saved it from the scrap heap, and not just because she contributed its definitive rendition.

The melody strikes a perfect note of bittersweetness, but the original lyrics were plot-specific and much more overt in their depressing content than the current ones…not only were they embarrassingly ‘lugubrious’, to use Garland’s description, but to sing them to a young child (which is what is happening in the film at this point) would be unspeakably cruel.

Thanks to Garland insisting on the necessary lyrical changes, the version heard today is mournfully optimistic, and you have to pay fairly close attention to realize just how depressing the sentiments being expressed really are. This sets it apart from both the holiday standards of its time, which tended to be idyllic and joyful, and from most of the later downbeat Holiday-themed standards like “Blue Christmas” that generally display their sadder elements much more openly. In fact, in all the length and breadth of the Christmas music genre, there’s really no other song like it, which is something to treasure in what is otherwise one of the most generic fields of music in existence.

Verdict: One of the few ubiquitous Christmas standards that I will unreservedly stick up for.

O Tannenbaum”/”O Christmas Tree” by Ernst Anschütz

This song occupies a space somewhere between the traditional Christmas hymns and the manufactured novelty crap that has dominated the genre for the last hundred years or so. It worked well enough in its original form as a booming, boisterous quasi-Drinking Song, but its banal melody is not well served by the American tendency to perform it as a sentimental ballad, and that combined with the inevitable overexposure any Christmas standard receives has made most American listeners cringe when they hear it.

Verdict: Decent in the German original, but straight-up bad in most American versions.