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On the Charts

Friday, January 9, 2015

Madonna siphons PC Music into the mainstream with her first Rebel Heart singles

Posted By on 01.09.15 at 02:30 PM

Album artwork for Rebel Heart
  • Album artwork for Rebel Heart

We're barely a week into 2015, and Madonna may have already embarked on the most tasteless album campaign of 2015. In anticipation of her 13th album, Rebel Heart, tentatively set for release on March 9, the longstanding pop icon posted a series of images to Instagram and Twitter depicting political figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. wearing the ropes that bind Madonna's face on the record's cover. "This ❤️#rebelheart had a dream!" reads the caption on the modified King portrait. Madonna has apologized for the image, though in 2015 it's hard not to suspect that the stunt might've been a calculated PR move. From what we've heard of the record so far, "deliberately tasteless" seems to be the look for Madonna this year. The singer employed both Diplo and PC Music associate Sophie to produce the album, and the resulting singles may be the first big leap between the Soundcloud underground and the pop mainstream.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Spotify, Soundcloud, and the web's leaky music infrastructure

Posted By on 11.07.14 at 01:00 PM

In the first week since its release, Taylor Swift's new album 1989 sold at pre-streaming numbers—that makes sense, because she never streamed it. The only (legal) way to hear 1989 since its release on October 27 has been to shell out the cover price through iTunes, Amazon, or an honest-to-goodness nondigital record store. It didn't pop up on Spotify, iTunes never had an exclusive preview, and any unauthorized rips uploaded to YouTube are promptly shot down from the cloud. Earlier this week Spotify announced that all of Swift's back catalog had been pulled by her label, Big Machine, as well. Swift went on to sell nearly 1.3 million copies of 1989, the biggest first-week sales we've seen since 2002 and the most copies a single album has sold all year. Where does that leave the music-delivery system that until this year seemed to be on track to replace MP3 downloads, just as MP3s once replaced CDs?

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Taylor Swift's 'Out of the Woods' inverts the anatomy of the power ballad

Posted By on 10.14.14 at 12:30 PM

A promotional image for Taylor Swift's album 1989
  • A promotional image for Taylor Swift's album 1989

Last night, 24-year-old pop powerhouse Taylor Swift released the second single from her forthcoming album, 1989. "Out of the Woods" takes a very different tone than the no-worries number "Shake It Off," released last August—it's a tense ballad with stark, punchy production. Big drums compete with Swift's vocals in the foreground, while whispers of synth bass snake around the back. For a young songwriter who's staked her claim in the pop world by writing flexible, athletic melodies, "Out of the Woods" is something of a sharp turn: its chorus pounds out just two notes bunched together in tight, dense syllables. Compared to recent singles by Miley Cyrus and Sky Ferreira, "Out of the Woods" almost works as a counterpoint to traditional ballad structure—it's very nearly an antiballad.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Can the Billboard Twitter Real-Time Charts separate signal from noise?

Posted By on 06.03.14 at 02:00 PM

At this point it's clear that the Internet has become at least as important to a pop song's success as old-school terrestrial radio. When Billboard began including digital streams in its formula for determining placement on the Hot 100 in late 2012 it radically altered the chart's makeup, and since then songs that haven't been promoted by their labels as singles (including meme-connected songs like Baauer's "Harlem Shake" and Ylvis's "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)") have charted almost entirely off of YouTube plays. Including digital streams in their mainstream charts went a long way towards bringing Billboard's rankings in line with how people are actually consuming pop music.

Now they're attempting to take that idea even further with something called the Billboard Twitter Real-Time Charts, which is pretty much exactly what the name says: a ranking of what songs are making waves on Twitter, compiled and released "multiple times a week," according to an official announcement. If acknowledging the importance of YouTube and Spotify helped to make the Hot 100 once again relevant, shouldn't a chart based on one of the more crucial platforms for developing songs, artists, and entire genres of music be an even greater step forward?

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Paramore against the trolls and psychopaths

Posted By on 05.27.14 at 02:00 PM

Twitter sometimes feels like a Superfund site for toxic psychic energy, where misogynists, racists, homophobes, and assorted bigots gleefully broadcast their hate and disturbingly graphic death threats are handed out over minor perceived sleights that in pre-Twitter days may have demanded, at the most extreme, a flipped bird. Over a weekend where the acts of a woman-hating mass murderer and a hashtag meant to convert the situation into a teachable moment provoked outrageously misogynistic responses on social media that confirmed just how near the mainstream some of his views were, that feeling was particularly acute.

But even at its worst, Twitter still has its redeeming moments. Like this:

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Usher kicks off the summer chart wars

Posted By on 05.20.14 at 02:00 PM

It's springtime, finally, and after weeks of stasis the Hot 100 is starting to turn over. While the top ten is still being firmly ruled by Pharrell's juggernaut-like "Happy", John Legend's surprisingly unstoppable "All of Me," and Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" (hanging tough after 34 weeks on the chart), a pair of Iggy Azalea tracks and the come-from-behind fourth single from the latest Paramore album are giving things a bit of a refresh.

Near the bottom of the chart there are a number of songs making their chart debuts, including Sia's slow-burner power ballad "Chandelier" and Tinashe's DJ Mustard-produced "2 On," which came in at number 89 and should climb much higher in coming weeks thanks to its summery slow-jam take on Mustard's trademark sound. But the biggest debut belongs to Usher Raymond IV, who returns to the Hot 100 with "Good Kisser," which opened at number 70 this week and is almost certainly destined for top-ten success.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Michael Jackson bounces back

Posted By on 05.13.14 at 02:09 PM

When Michael Jackson's new album Xscape was announced back at the end of March the reaction was muted. Epic had already released one posthumous album, 2010's Michael, pieced together from outtakes and polished up by contemporary producers and the uninspired, mercenary-feeling results (not to mention the rumors that Jackson hadn't actually sung on some of the songs) just sort of underlined how gruesome and fucked up the entire situation around his death had been. Going back to that well a second time just seemed gross.

Xscape, on the other hand, is remarkably enjoyable for an album of music by a virtually reanimated dead man. Maybe it's a result of increased distance from his messy death, or more attentive work by the producers who finished the songs, or maybe it was just a matter of them working from better raw material.

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Calvin Harris takes the lead

Posted By on 05.06.14 at 02:38 PM

EDM has only been a serious contender on the American pop playing field for a short time, but there seem to be a few rules for the genre as it pertains to chart success. One is that unlike the majority of the dance music that EDM grew out of, a track generally requires a vocalist to break with a pop audience. EDM producers being more beat-focused musicians, this usually means bringing in a guest singer, like Aloe Blacc on Avicii's folksy "Wake Me Up!" or Rihanna on Calvin Harris's "We Found Love," which helped to throw open the doors to the Hot 100 for EDM and still remains the gold standard that crossover dance tracks aspire to.

There are a number of benefits for producers in this kind of arrangement. For as ambitious as they can be, a lot of them still started out as the kind of techno geeks that feel more comfortable working alone in Ableton or separated from their audience by DJ decks. And as the songs' public faces, the guest vocalists take the brunt of the often tedious work of promoting the song—the photo shoots, video shoots, and other tasks that sound glamorous but are usually surprisingly boring—while the beat maker concentrates on their high-paying DJ gigs in Vegas megaclubs and the like.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Like it or not, 5 Seconds of Summer is rock's future

Posted By on 04.29.14 at 02:00 PM

As rock 'n' roll has become increasingly irrelevant to the modern pop music conversation, its most faithful fans, those who still believe it's infused with the same revolutionary transformative energy it had at its birth, have started to fall into one of three categories: snobs who would have spent the 60s listening to jazz and complaining about how vapid the music on the radio was, those who grew up on rock and aren't about to ditch it for rap or dance music, and the very young. Out of all of them, the latter type of listeners have done the most work to rejuvenate the genre's outlaw image—when all of your peers are listening to electronically generated music, listening to something with loud electric guitars front and center is a more rebellious act than it's been in decades.

Older rock diehards may be comforted by the fact that the form continues to find new adherents, but they probably won't like the stuff that more newly fledged fans are into. Like 5 Seconds of Summer, whose single "She Looks So Perfect" is currently at number 54 on the Hot 100 and looks like the fastest moving rock song to hit the chart in some time.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Iggy Azalea flips the script and goes pop

Posted By on 04.22.14 at 02:00 PM

There aren't many careers where being a statuesque blonde with model-level good looks and an exotic accent could count as a disadvantage, but "rapper" seems to be one of them. For the past few years Australian-born MC Iggy Azalea has been trying to break into the rap game, and despite co-signs from industry heavyweights like T.I. (who signed her to his Grand Hustle label), her technically formidable flow (which was apparent from her electro-tinged 2011 debut single "Pu$$y"), and the generous amount of good press she's received (she made XXL magazine's annual Freshman list), she's had trouble holding onto a label deal and has had trouble establishing the more emphatically hip-hop audience that even rappers with mainstream ambitions need to get off the ground. (Landing a contract with Wilhelmina Models went much smoother.)

In a great new profile in Billboard by my friend Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Azalea lays the bulk of the blame for her situation on industry sexism and pop audiences' strict expectations for what a rapper should look or sound like, as well as a losing beef with Azealia Banks over a lyric intended to make light of her own whiteness that crashed and burned in the clumsily offensive way that's typical of white Australians getting anywhere near the subject of race. It's certainly hard to pin the blame on Azalea's talents. Ironically, for the amount of ire that she's provoked in hip-hop traditionalists, she has a more classical throwback flow than any other significant up-and-comer right now.

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