“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.

“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.

“A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra” by Frank Sinatra

Christmas albums, while by definition built around a theme, do not necessarily qualify as Concept Albums, at least by general consensus. Indeed, the vast majority of Christmas albums are far too unambitious to be in consideration for such a lofty title, being at best minor entries in their creators’ catalogues and at worst blatantly calculated cash grabs with little or no effort put into them.

That said, during his tenure at Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra basically invented the Concept Album. Beyond merely having a general theme, his albums from this period were extremely carefully structured and modulated to create a very specific effect, and he applied this approach even to his Christmas album for the label. This was actually his second Christmas album (his third if you count the Christmas-themed singles compilation Columbia put out after he left the label), and he would make at least two more in his lifetime, but there’s a reason this is the one everybody remembers.

The album’s sound is old-fashioned even by the standards of its late-Fifties release date: it seems like a throwback to Sinatra’s Columbia days, particularly in the heavy use of backing choirs. But a little nostalgia seems quite appropriate for the subject, and it fits the mood the album is trying to create, so the result turns out to be the first of many good decisions Frank made regarding this record.

The first half of the album (which would have been the first “side” of the original vinyl release) features contemporary Christmas songs, while the second “side” is devoted to semiclassical Christmas hymns. Fortunately, only one of the endless stable of reprehensible Holiday Novelty songs is represented here (“Jingle Bells”, which opens the album): the rest are fairly respectable Great American Songbook standards, one of which (“Mistletoe and Holly”) was written specifically for this album, and has gone on the become a minor standard in its own right.

Moreover, this might be the only rendition of “Jingle Bells” that I have ever enjoyed. The primary reason for this is that Frank plays around pretty freely with the melody, turning it into a loose, carefree Swing tune, and the result is, if nothing else, far less annoying than the tooth-grindingly simplistic original tune that we all know and hate.

The first side mostly basks in genial, somewhat generic good cheer, as a kind of gradual warmup for the overall experience of the album. Things take a more substantial turn with a glowing rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Sinatra famously commissioned a change in the lyrics that has hung on as a persistent alternate version, replacing the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. This change has drawn complaints from many people over the years, but Frank knew what he was doing, and, at least for the purposes of this album, the new lyrics fits much better with the overall tone he was going for. It really shouldn’t have propagated to other renditions of the song, but for the original purpose it was written for, it works perfectly.

This more serious choice of song serves as a transition to the solemn ecstasy of the hymns that make up the album’s second side. It starts with a stately, almost regal rendition of “The First Noel” and a clarion-voiced “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Things become even more intensely beautiful with a serenely triumphant “Adeste Fideles”, before concluding with the sacred hush of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Silent Night”, the latter of which features what may be the most beautiful vocal performance I’ve ever heard Frank give. At this point in his life, Sinatra was by all accounts not very religious, but hearing these performances, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t spiritually touched by what he was singing.

The second half of this album is so magnificent that it almost makes you wish Sinatra had just made an album of Christmas hymns (there were certainly many more possibilities for him to choose from). That said, this album holds together so perfectly as an overall experience that I personally wouldn’t have had it any other way. This is almost certainly the greatest Christmas album ever recorded (even Bing Crosby and Nat “King” Cole’s efforts in the field would have trouble competing with it), so I felt that reviewing it would be a good way to honor the holiday at hand and offer a bit of good cheer and inspirational subject matter to my own readers. Merry Christmas.

“My Christmas” by Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli has gotten some flack for his attempt to bring Classical music into the pop market, but I consider him a positive force in the business and in culture in general. Most of the people who go after him are really trying on some level to keep Classical music a niche market so they can use it as a status symbol, so their opinions are suspect at best.

More than anything else, Bocelli reminds me of a singing Liberace…minus the flamboyant image, of course. But like Liberace, he repackages Classical music into a form that is easily digestible for the general public, and like Liberace he has received a great deal of undeserved scorn in spite of being, by all ordinary standards, an exceptionally gifted musician. And yes, Bocelli isn’t Pavarotti or Domingo, just as Liberace wasn’t Glenn Gould, but it hardly seems fair (or intellectually honest) to make that comparison when you remember that the vast majority of other legit opera singers aren’t remotely on the level of those giants either.

That said, there are times when Bocelli’s willingness to accommodate his mainstream audiences can get a bit excessive, and this album is arguably one of those times. Even many of his fans complained about his singing tired Christmas novelty standards in what seemed like an attempt to pander to the mainstream market, instead of seeking out more esoteric and interesting choices. Granted, this is generally the standard strategy followed by popular singers who record Christmas albums, but given the rich vein of Classical and Semiclassical Christmas music Bocelli had to draw on, the song selection should have been more interesting than it is here.

There are a fair number of legitimate classical hymns performed here, such as “Angels We Have Heard On High”, “Adestes Fideles”, and “Silent Night”, and they certainly show off Bocelli’s voice nicely, but even they seem a little too obvious…Bocelli should arguably have chosen more items like “Caru Geso Bambino”, a lovely Italian Christmas hymn not much known in the U.S., for this album, instead of going almost entirely with the overexposed Christmas chestnuts.

The lead single from this album, a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, isn’t the worst performance of this overexposed classic I’ve heard, but the switch from English to Italian mid-song seems gimmicky and distracting. And items like “Jingle Bells” (taken from the album’s accompanying TV special, where he performed it with the Muppets) or “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” are simply unworthy of Bocelli’s talent. To his credit, he tries to treat them with the respect he gives to the rest of his material, but this kind of material neither deserves nor rewards that kind of respect, so the results just sound like an oversung embarrassment.

On top of that, there are three duets here with singers from entirely different genres…a jazzy “The Christmas Song” with Natalie Cole, a heavily Pop-flavored “What Child Is This?” with Mary J. Blige, and a Country-style “Blue Christmas” with Reba McEntire…and none of them is entirely successful. Bocelli’s attempts to modulate his sound to fit these different genres just sound awkward and tentative, like even he knew this was a bad idea, and he pairs badly with Blige’s bluesy Soul contralto and McEntire’s Country twang.

But there are a few glorious moments that justify this album’s existence. “The Lord’s Prayer”, performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is magnificent, with Bocelli performing with incredible feeling and the legendary choir providing a suitably epic and weighty backdrop. This album also features the first studio recording of Bocelli singing “I Believe”, which he reportedly performed for the Pope at one point and which has become one of his signature items. And “God Bless Us Everyone”, the theme song from the 2009 film version of A Christmas Carol, is an absolutely amazing song that makes for a powerfully inspirational and gloriously satisfying album closer.

Overall, there are much better Bocelli recordings out there if you’re just starting to explore his work. This particular album tends to emphasize his worst habits, and he’s usually much more respectable than this. That said, this album does definitely have its moments, and while it doesn’t make for a very good first impression of Bocelli, it’s worth picking up somewhere along the way, if only just for “I Believe”, “God Bless Us Everyone”, and “The Lord’s Prayer”.

“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.