CHARTING THE CHARTS: 12 Oct 06

Normally I lead with album-chart news, but this week I must begin by honoring a singles-chart achievement by the Bard of Snark:

Revenge of the nerd. Beloved by generations of pubescent boys, “Weird Al” Yankovic scores the biggest hit of his career, as his Chamillionaire parody “White and Nerdy” vaults from #28 to #9 – Yankovic’s first-ever Top 10 hit, just two weeks shy of his 47th birthday. That’s right, Al fans, “White” has gone further than “Eat It” (#12, 1984) or “Smells Like Nirvana” (#35, 1992), his only other career Top 40 hits. It’s a victory for anyone who feels, as I do, that “White” is the funniest and best thing Al’s done in more than a decade. Even better, it’s the result not of sales gimmicks or hype but good old-fashioned viral word-of-mouth. Al’s debut in the Top 30 of the Hot 100 last week was notable – his highest debut ever, and instantly his second-biggest hit – but it wasn’t that surprising in the age of iTunes; a single week of sales can send songs crashing onto the chart, with little or no radio support, as fans rush in with 99-cent clicks. This week’s move, however, is a real schocker: apparently even more people wanted Al’s single in its second week as did in its first, as another digital sales burst (radio airplay is still negligible) spurs the song into the Top 10. As if Al’s cup t’weren’t runnething over enough, he scores a second simultaeneous Hot 100 hit, as his Green Day spoof “Canadian Idiot” debuts at #82. To paraphrase Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson, that’s what Al loves about these junior-high-school boys: he gets older, they stay the same age.

Killer or be killed. As predicted for weeks, Brandon Flowers’s gang of reborn anthem-rockers fell to Evanescence on the album chart. Amy Lee’s faux-goths drained the wallets of almost 450,000 Emily The Stranges, an impressive number if not an all-out blockbuster. (That sound you just heard was My Chemical Romance’s managers and accountants salivating.) As for the Killers, the news is not all bad. Sam’s Town’s 315,000 in sales is a disappointment in terms of expectations – the big push on the MTV awards, two years of glossy magazine spreads, Flowers’s big mouth – but it’s their biggest single week of sales ever; and over on the Modern Rock radio chart, “When You Were Young” evicts the Red Hot Chili Peppers from the #1 slot. Meanwhile, online, the snark rages on, with scores of digerati piling on, while Slate’s Jonah Weiner mounts an eloquent half-defense of the album. (Me? I think the followup single, “Bones,” is lame, but there’s a few minor gems on there.)

Owning the sexy. Seven weeks – that’s how long Justin Timberlake has been #1 with “SexyBack” on the Hot 100, a chart that combines song sales and radio airplay. Yet if you look at the sales-only chart (Top Digital Songs) used to calculate the overall Hot 100, “SexyBack” got evicted from #1 weeks ago, first by the Fray and this week by (gack) Hinder. It’s an interesting study in how the charts work: big iTunes sales were what propelled Justin to #1 in the first place, but wall-to-wall Top 40 radio airplay is keeping him there, now that sales have fallen off. His followup hit, the superior, hipster-praised “My Love,” is rising fast, up to #13 this week and threatening to enter the Top 10 while “SexyBack” is still #1. The main difference between this hit and its predecessor? “My Love” is being propelled by airplay and sales almost equally, with radio leading the way. iTunes users have been able to buy the song for weeks, so there’s not likely to be a one-week burst of sales for “My Love”; if it’s destined to follow “SexyBack” at #1, it’ll have to get there the old, one-week-at-a-time way. The bigger lesson: first singles from albums sold on iTunes have an easier time on the charts than second or third ones do. Not like any of Trousersnake’s songs is hurting much.

From smoking to dead. Last week saw the most red-hot Tuesday of CD releases so far this year, as Evanescence and the Killers were joined by such critic-proof acts as Beck (#7), the Decemberists (#35) and the Hold Steady (#128), along with country giant-killer George Strait (#3) and not-so-Miss-Thang-anymore R&B girl Monica (#8). This week, in one of their usual bouts of idiotic scheduling, the labels have released a lot of middling crap, and it’s anyone’s guess whether Evanescence will repeat or get tossed by Rod Stewart, desecrating more standards, or Lloyd Banks, pumping out some g-g-g-g-generic G-Unit bullshit. If only the Killers’ handlers had been smart enough to push the release of Sam’s Town back just one week, to get out of the way of Amy Lee, the fussy Mr. Flowers would’ve had a #1 record; someone at Island–Def Jam needs to get fired, or at least buy a calendar.

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CHARTING THE CHARTS: 5 Oct 06

Last week’s sleepy charts gave way to a real horsereace this week – and not even Oprah could whip her pony through the tape…

20 Y.O. got no help from “O.” Nothing sells product like Oprah – James Blunt can credit at least a third of his double-platinum sales this year to Winfrey’s show. So when Janet Jackson made a flawlessly timed appearance on the Mighty O’s couch last week, just as her new album hit stores, everyone predicted (including yours truly) that Ms. Wardrobe Malfunction was destined for #1. But we – and Janet – forgot about Luda: for the third time in a row, Ludacris debuts at #1, as his Release Therapy beats Janet by less than 20,000 copies. The unhelpfully titled 20 Y.O. is now Janet’s second album in a row to debut in the runner-up slot. Right after Nipplegate, 2004’s Damita Jo also came up short at #2, ending Janet’s streak of five consecutive #1 studio albums. That streak began way back in 1986 with Control, Jackson’s pop masterpiece; 20 Y.O. billed itself as a sequel to that album – from its title to its marketing blitz to Janet’s attempt to return to her 20-year-old figure (minus another stone or two). But 20 Y.O. is no Control, musically or commercially. Her chart shortfall is an embarrassing face-plant, sorta like watching someone’s tarted-up middle-aged mom trying to get into a club and getting dissed at the velvet rope. Actually, it’s exactly like that.

White and charty. The Hot 100 singles chart is a veritable parade of honkies-made-good this week, as white-boy music takes up four of the top five slots – from the immoveable Justin to the pleasant, inoffensive Volvo Rock bands Snow Patrol and the Fray. You can credit, or blame, iTunes; the Fray’s “How to Save a Life” is the country’s top download this week (thanks in large part to Grey’s Anatomy), and the others are all given a lift by 99-cent downloads. As I’ve said before, digital sales generally boost stuff that appeals to suburbanites…the good, the bad, the ugly. On the ugly tip, Hinder’s crapfest “Lips of an Angel” continues its march up the list, landing at #3, just two heartbeats away from Justin (still #1 after six weeks – the Sexy is officially Back, methinks) and Ludacris (waiting patiently at #2 for Trousersnake to put it back in his pants). On the ugly-and-proud tip, “Weird Al” Yankovic benefits from the YouTube revolution with his highest-ever debuts on both the Hot 100 and the album chart: “White and Nerdy” crashes onto the singles list at #29, and Straight Outta Lynwood is his first Top 10 album ever. Imagine if he’d included a “SexyBack” parody…

Goth chicks win – shoulda kept the eyeliner. Brandon Flowers’s decision to drop the Maybelline for the Killers’ second album is looking like a worse decision all the time, as they will debut at #2 next week behind Evanescence. Idol of poseur goth girls nationwide Amy Lee will get to gloat at departed bandmate Ben Moody, as the album he fronted, Fallen, never topped the chart. But screw all that – I’m wondering how high the Decemberists will land with their major-label debut, and if the critically adored Hold Steady can break the Top 40.

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LIVE: A VIRGIN

My wife and I spent Saturday having a blast with friends and relatives at VirginFest – the first in a hoped-for annual series of multiact festival concerts, held at Baltimore’s Pimlico Raceway. (Insert Altamont Speedway joke here.)

Baltimore was a long way to travel for what amounted to a massive Richard Branson branding event. Not all of the acts lived up to the big stage or the advance hype, and thanks to a fluke or two on my calendar, I’ve actually seen, or am about to see, several of the performers at their own shows this same month (or very recently). So for us, at least, the event was something less than momentous. I also heard through my uncle’s wife, who has connections to some of the organizers, that the show did well enough but was far from a blockbuster.

Still, if all VirginFest accomplishes is establishing a beachhead for 21st Century festival concerts on the East Coast – after the twin disasters of Woodstock ‘99 and the ill-fated Field Day Fest in 2003 – I will be grateful. I’ve watched helplessly over the last five years as Coachella, Bonnaroo and the formerly-traveling, now-stationary Lollapalooza blossomed into beloved all-day (or multiday) events, miles away from anyplace I could get to by car. Not unlike New York rap stars fighting their Atlanta, Houston and L.A. counterparts to win back a genre they invented, festival organizers needed to bring the entire festival-show genre back to the East. God bless ‘em for finally pulling one off.

Here’s a quick rundown of the acts we saw – our experience was far from exhaustive – and how they fared. Let’s start with the day’s undisputed winner.

Scissor Sisters: Relegated to the second stage, and not even to the cleanup slot (that went to Flaming Lips, whom we missed), these queens stole the day away from far more established acts, with a set that was exhilirating, notably polished and damn sexy. Who knew their sleek, Elton John–Leo Sayer sound would translate so phenomenally well live? Token girl Ana Matronic is a charming mistress of ceremonies, multi-instrumentalist BabyDaddy leads a remarkably tight band, and Jake Shears is not only a tornado of a lead singer, he’s so hot even straight boys can’t stop watching him. The early word on their new album, Ta-Dah (out tomorrow), has been good, not great, but Scissor Sisters own the stage like they’re about to conquer the world.

The Raconteurs: The day’s other big winners; my wife grew from disinterest to mild ardor watching them rip it up live. The only things keeping the Raconteurs from replacing the White Stripes as Jack White’s permanent vehicle are his loyalty to Meg and his unwillingness to give them his “A” material. Watching White and Brendan Benson work the stage – with their current array of B+ White songs and A– Benson songs – they already look like pros, and their sound is powerful. This was the second time I’d seen White’s so-called side project, the first being a Tower Records in-store back in April, and I felt again what I felt back then – onstage, White doesn’t hold back, and what feels tentative on the Raconteurs’ album feels bruising and potent live. I’ll be seeing them again tomorrow night at Roseland.

The Killers: Here again, a band I’d already seen (last year at New York’s one-time Across the Narrows festival) didn’t change my opinion of them much. Unlike the Raconteurs, though, the Killers had room for improvement; they have a good rock songbook that’s hard to bring across live. And one year later – as Brandon Flowers & co. prepare to release their massively anticipated sophomore album and are positioning themselves as heirs to Springsteen and U2 – their tepid live presence is becoming a greater liability. My uncle, watching the show with us, put it best when he said that the set started and ended strong but sagged in the middle. Flowers seems to sink into a torpor when he’s not performing one of the group’s big hits – occasionally, even while they are doing a hit, as on their tentative “Mr. Brightside.” But the Killers rallied big-time for the set-closer, “All These Things I’ve Done,” whose “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” chant was as rousing as if they’d been joined by a gospel choir.

Gnarls Barkley: You’d think that Danger Mouse’s dense soundscapes would be hard to reproduce live. And you’d be right. Gnarls’s set was plagued by a muddy sound mix – a killer when you’ve got around a dozen people onstage, including a string quartet – and the spottiness of their material. Let’s face it, St. Elsewhere is a three-star album surrounding a five-star single, and like the ’60s psychedlic epics to which it aspires, it sounds better as a coherent piece than it does when you pull its songs apart. Keeping with their policy of always playing in costume, Cee-Lo, Danger Mouse et al. came out dressed in Roman regalia; Cee-Lo wore a full centurion getup, and the backup singers and female string players looked foxy in their togas. Having seen Gnarls perform on TV and now live, I get the sense that each of their songs is too knotty to work onstage until it’s been ripped apart, reassembled and then rehearsed continually – which is what made “Crazy,” their hit and the song they’ve performed the most, also the best live cut, with a chill-inducing string intro and a haunting piano line. That and “Smily Faces,” the set-closer, were the most rousing parts of an otherwise spotty set.

WolfMother: Already onstage when we arrived, these loud-and-thrashy Aussies were competent and energetic, but they’re going to need at least another album’s worth of material before they’re worthy of this big a venue. The songs were undistinguished and sludgy and couldn’t distract me from the food tent.

The Who: I go 35 years without ever seeing these guys live, and then suddenly I see them twice in two weeks. Thanks to a well-connected friend, I saw Roger n’ Pete two weeks ago at the North American tour-opener in Philadelphia, and they rocked; they were so good that they overcame any cynicism I had about their umpteenth “farewell” tour or their well-intentioned but hit-and-miss new material. Less than two weeks later, Daltrey looked like the road was already getting to him, with his voice hoarser and his energy level flagging. Townshend was his usual spry self, executing a few jumping guitar moves and playing the hell out of “Baba O’Reilly,” but they both looked like they’d rather be doing their own gig. The hero of the band continues to be drummer Zak Starkey, who looks and plays more like Keith Moon every day (minus, one hopes, the excess and the tantrums). The main highlight of the set for me, having just seen these guys, was the new addition of “Eminence Front,” one of the Who’s very last (1982) and simplest hits – and secretly, one of my favorites.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: We couldn’t stay for the entirety of the Chilis’ show-closing set, because we valued our life spans too much to get stuck in the same ungodly traffic leaving the site that we’d experienced getting there. But I’m glad I managed to catch some of my favorite RHCP cuts, including a hard-edged “Can’t Stop” and a surprisingly rocking “Scar Tissue” (thank you, John Frusciante, still the band’s unsung MVP). The most depressing thing about finally seeing the Chili Peppers live isn’t pondering how much older both you and they are these days; it’s realizing that they will neither fall short of nor exceed your expectations. Onstage, they look like…the Chili Peppers, leaping, pogoing, lurching, and playing like the seasoned pros they are. That might not make them life-changing, but it does make them something like old friends.

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CHARTING THE CHARTS: 21 Sep 06

I am migrating this weekly feature from my LiveJournal, where I’ve been testing it out for the past three weeks, over here to my “official” blog. I can’t tell if a lot of people are reading these Charting The Charts posts, but I enjoy writing them.

To my knowledge, I am the only person online who’s attempting something like this – running down Billboard chart happenings (that’s not unusual) and then dissecting them, adding a dose of opinion and behind-the-scenes theorizing.

Anyway, here’s what’s going on in this week’s charts.

Bringing sheckels back. Justin Timberlake takes over the top of the album chart from Beyoncé, one week after her impressive, if a little below-expectations, #1 debut with 540,000 CDs sold. Justin’s FutureSex/LoveSounds scores an even more impressive 684,000 copies, not quite the 700K some were predicting but damned close. The difference: Justin had a bigger single at radio and MTV. Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” was a big hit but a quick one, peaking in the top five and then dropping in about two months; Timberlake’s “SexyBack” is now in its fourth week at #1 and culturally ubiquitous. I also think Timberlake is the guilty pleasure of a much wider audience than Beyoncé and sold to some in-the-closet rock and rap fans. Still, both “B” and “JT” set personal-best solo-career sales records. Then again, both reached greater heights with their respective ex-troupes: Destiny’s Child’s Survivor had a bigger first week back in the day, and *N Sync’s one-week sales record – No Strings Attached, March 2000, 2.4 million copies in seven days – will stand for a long, long time.

Strait and narrow. Fred Bronson leads his “Chart Beat” column with big country-chart news this week, veteran hitmaker George Strait’s capture of the title for most #1 country songs: a staggering 41. (Just for perspective, the champs on the pop chart, the Beatles, hold the record with a scant 20 chart-toppers; Elvis and Mariah are tied for second with 17 each.) The most interesting tidbit about Bronson’s writeup of this achievement? The guys Strait beat to take over the title. Forget your Garth Brookses, your Willie Nelsons, your Patsy Clines – the former record-holders are a parade of oh-yeah-I-think-I-know-that-guys: Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard and Ronnie Milsap. Seriously, other than maybe Haggard, these are not acts that anyone north of Virginia or east of Indiana will be familar with. For that matter, Strait himself, who’s been in the game since the early ’80s, isn’t half as famous to city slickers as, say, Toby Keith or Alan Jackson. The point: not only is country music its own little world, but its biggest chart successes are modest fellers that don’t care if us blue-staters have ever heard of ‘em.

Get out! Right now? Remember JoJo? She’s a tween-pop starlet who scored her first big hit at age 13 in the summer of 2004 with “Leave (Get Out),” which peaked at #12. I kind of fell in love with “Leave” and put it on my Summer 2004 comp that year. Two years later and a few months shy of her 16th birthday (I’m sure an MTV camera crew is on the case already), she is saved from one-hit-wonder-dom with a massive jump to #3 on the Hot 100 with “Too Little Too Late,” a pleasant if thinly-veiled rewrite of her first hit. Here again is evidence of the major shift on the charts since iTunes was added to the mix. Back in ‘04, “Leave” probably would’ve been as big a hit on the Hot 100 if digital sales were factored in, but with the chart totally slanted toward radio, it didn’t even make the Top 10; two years later, JoJo coasts into the penthouse, with what is basically the same song. It’s as if JoJo’s handlers rewrote the first hit to give her a do-over. Smart.

Back from the closet. The biggest new release this week comes from American Idol spawn Clay Aiken, who – even after breaking the hearts of millions of girls with poor gaydar – is expected to move about 200K copies of his “comeback” CD. That probably won’t be enough to unseat Trousersnake, who’ll drop at least 50%…but half of 684,000 CDs is still a tidy sum. But the best news of all in this week’s new releases concerns Fergie’s The Duchess, which reportedly is tanking not living up to optimistic sales projections. Join me next week, won’t you, and we can laugh and point at her together – whether or not she’s peed in her pants again.

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SHOWN UP BY THE RUNNER-UP

By request, a list of well-known #2 singles, many of them stopped by crappy, forgettable #1s.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the agonizing sight of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” the undisputed best single of 2006, getting stuck at #2 on the Billboard charts thanks to the dreadful Fergie smash “London Bridge.”

In passing, I mentioned that Gnarls getting stuck in the runner-up slot was maddening but not shameful (quoting myself): “a #2 peak puts ‘Crazy’ in good company. Someday I’ll have to do a blog post about the long list of classic #2 singles – ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ ‘Since U Been Gone’ – many of which were foiled by forgettable #1s.”

That someday is today, as one of my loyal readers instantly requested such a post. I should confess straight away, the research for this was easy – I mean too easy; junior-high-term-paper easy – because there’s a single source: The Billboard Book of No. 2 Singles. Yup, they actually publish such a thing; it’s meant as a companion volume to Fred Bronson’s beloved Billboard Book of Number One Hits. The No. 2 Singles book not only tells a little story about each hit-that-didn’t-quite-make-it, there’s also data about which song(s) prevented the #2 hit in question from going all the way. What I aim to provide here is some critical judgment about the songs that wuz robbed.

 

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THE WAR ON FERGIE

    I scoffed when she dumbed down a pretty good rap group. I cringed when she sang about her lady lumps. But now she’s interfered with my favorite song of the year. This is war.

I am rarely mistaken for a sports nut. I mean, who’s going to look at my wimpy, city-boy ass and think, There’s a guy who likes his Final Four? But on the rare occasion when I have to confess my general lack of interest in sports, I offer the pithy explanation, “Music is my sports.”

I mean this quite literally, much more so than most music fans. Hipster rock fans are a dime a dozen; even schlocky pop fans who can sing everything on Z100-FM are thick on the ground. But I am that rare beast who studies Billboard charts the way most guys peruse box scores. And much like a sports nut debating the minutiae of salary caps and first-draft picks, I dig behind the stats to find the reasons why one song or album tops another on the charts – there’s almost always some extraneous reason besides talent and popularity, usually involving radio formats or marketing gimmicks or an Oprah appearance.

Finally, like a sports nut, I pick my teams and root for them. When a favorite player tops a chart, I exult; when he/she/they lose a bullet or slip a few rungs, I quietly mourn.

My peculiar approach to music fandom explains why I am so angry today. Thursdays are when Billboard announces the results of the next week’s singles charts. (Unlike the album charts, which are widely reported because Soundscan data is relatively easy for numerous media outlets to obtain, the Hot 100 singles chart is pretty much only reported by Billboard; it involves complicated sales-plus-radio formulas that no other outlet can calculate.) And boy, did I not like what Billboard reported today.

The new Number One single in America is the debut solo single by Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, “London Bridge.” On its face, this is a revolting development: “London Bridge” is a thin, hokey girlyrap ditty – “Hollaback Girl” for dummies. Its title sounds classy, until you realize it’s a metaphor for “going down.” It’s also an obvious sequel – probably dreamed up by a record-exec with dollar signs in his eyes – to last year’s surprise Black Eyed Peas smash “My Humps,” widely agreed to be one of the most toxic songs ever.

But let’s ignore the song’s lousy artistic qualities. Statistically, it’s done something even more horrifying: By shooting to #1, it blocked the best single of 2006 – Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” – from topping the charts in America. For the fifth week in a row, “Crazy” is #2. “London Bridge” shot from #5 to #1.

The awesomeness of Gnarls’s song is not up for debate. Not only did it top charts around the world for months last spring, it has also been covered by more than a half-dozen major artists in its short six-month life – just last weekend, Jack White and the Raconteurs played it at Lollapalooza – and it is expected to top critics’ polls for single of the year handily. But as a chart phenomenon, it has crossed over slowly in America. This is yet another thing that made me love “Crazy”: its rise reminds me of the old-fashioned, slow-and-steady crossovers we used to see on the charts when I was a teenager, when songs would percolate at a couple of stations in pockets around the country and then slowly spread, picking up stations and selling more singles as each week passed. Nowadays, such chart climbs are somewhat rarer; like hit movies, hit songs often explode out of nowhere, with big label budgets foisting them on the public. But in America, at least, “Crazy” behaved more like the Little Engine That Could.

When I last wrote about “Crazy,” in mid-July, it had just risen to the runner-up slot. It’s been waiting patiently there ever since, stuck behind Nelly Furtado’s smash #1 hit, “Promiscuous,” which topped the Hot 100 for six weeks. (I half-wonder if Furtado has mixed feelings about this; she’s one of the acts that has recorded a cover of “Crazy.”) According to Billboard chart columnist Fred Bronson, last week “Crazy” came just a few points shy of slipping past “Promiscuous” into the top slot; one more week, Fred said, should do it.

But Fergie had other plans. The red flag went up last week, when “London Bridge” vaulted from #84 to #5 all at once, setting a record for the second-biggest single-week jump in Hot 100 history. Thus, this week, the last leg of her conquering journey was comparatively shorter.

The teeth-gnashing thing is that Furtado’s single was ready to wane: this week, “Promiscuous” drops from #1 to #3, behind Gnarls. In short, had there been no “London Bridge,” “Crazy” this week would have achieved its historic status as an American #1 single. Instead, it will go down as a runner-up.

If that comes to pass, one takes solace that a #2 peak puts “Crazy” in good company. Someday I’ll have to do a blog post about the long list of classic #2 singles – “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Since U Been Gone” – many of which were foiled by forgettable #1s.

But the really depressing thing about the failure of “Crazy” to top the iconic Hot 100 in America is what caused it: a mix of predictable U.S. radio-programmer indifference bolstered by a sudden rush of consumer whim.

The radio thing is easy to explain: programmers have been slow to move on “Crazy”; on the separate chart Billboard runs which isolates just radio airplay, “Crazy” has never risen higher than #10. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it would be understandble if the general public were indifferent to “Crazy.”

It isn’t: both in traditional retail stores and on iTunes, Gnarls Barkley has been a big seller. You’d think that by now, radio would be playing the crap out of a song/act the public has clearly embraced. In one of the worst summers for music sales in U.S. history, Gnarls’s album St. Elsewhere has remained in the Top 10 (often the Top Five) since June, never reaching #1 but continually providing record retailers with the kind of bread-and-butter CD sales they desperately need. Meanwhile, “Crazy” has been the #1 seller on iTunes since early July, the culmination of months among Apple’s Top 10 digital songs.

As I wrote more than a year ago, Billboard made a smart move in early 2005 by adding iTunes sales to the Hot 100. It has been a revolutionary change, giving a more accurate, more direct sense of what songs catch the general public’s fancy week to week. The only reason “Crazy” got as high as #2, given radio’s mild response, was its awesome sales on iTunes, which more than outweighed the radio ranking.

But: live by iTunes, die by iTunes. “London Bridge” is huge there, too. The big leap Fergie made two weeks ago coincided with the single’s release on iTunes, where it shot to #1. The Fergie song has just-okay radio airplay (not much better than Gnarls’s), but two straight weeks of heavy iTunes sales made up the difference. The same public that bought “Crazy” for weeks went gaga for “London Bridge,” and they’re the reason for the Gnarls Barkley coup. It would be nice to blame indifferent radio programmers. But the fact is, it’s mostly the public’s fault.

Looking back over the history of Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson herself, the public’s whims also play a role. “My Humps” was a throwaway song on the Black Eyed Peas’ last album that was never intended as a single. Last fall A&M/Universal, the Peas’ label, was busy working their hand-picked emphasis track, “Don’t Lie,” to radio. But then America spoke: on iTunes, “My Humps” took off, its whiny odes to “lady lumps” and the pleasures of getting one’s boyfriend to buy expensive blue jeans having touched a nerve with club kids and teenyboppers with iPods. The label quickly shifted focus from “Don’t Lie” to “My Humps,” and the song became a chart smash. Fergie’s is the only voice you hear through 80% of “My Humps.” The Black Eyed Peas, a middling hip-hop act that arguably signed a pact with the devil by taking in teen-pop refugee Fergie in order to score hits, found themselves a sideshow to her preening. (In a recent interview, longtime BEP leader Will.I.Am bemoaned the group’s new schlock-pop media profile, a crisis of confidence brought on when he watched a hilariously apt Saturday Night Live fake ad that lampooned the Peas for being shills.)

I reviewed the Black Eyed Peas’ 1998 debut CD for CMJ back in the day, and I must say I found them pleasant but somewhat forgettable as “conscious,” post–De La Soul backpacker-rappers. They suffered through two dud albums as a three-man team before teaming up with Fergie in 2003. I suppose it’s hard to be angry with Fergie for dumbing down and providing hits to a group that was never at the forefront of hip-hop to begin with. I also couldn’t get too angry when “My Humps” polluted the radio last year; if it was screechy and annoying, at least it was funny. The moment she started to offend me was when her handlers – I picture a cabal of managers, agents, and label execs – decided to launch her solo career based entirely around the “My Humps” template. So 2006 is the year the War on Fergie began.

And the moment when she stopped Gnarls Barkley at the brink of #1 will go down as her Archduke Ferdinand moment. Down with Fergie!

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DOES THAT MAKE ME SUMMERY? POSSIBLY.

    Summer 2006 is here to bring pop thrills, long song titles, and a hit so awesome, I included it twice.
Summer 2006, CMM Records

In homage to the late Lloyd Bentsen, I say this to the summer of 2006: I lived through 2005. 2005 brought me many great songs. You, sir, are no 2005.

To be fair, 2006 has not been without its musical charms – from the Arctic Monkeys record I’ve been playing to death to the Be Your Own Pet show I saw last month. But on the whole this year has simply not measured up to the embarrassment of riches that was 2005. Putting together Summer 2005 a year ago, the challenge was figuring out which awesome songs I would have to cut to fit the mix onto an 80-minute CD. This year, I still had more candidates than slots, but the challenge was figuring out which songs were decent enough to qualify.

Luckily, I had plenty of time: I had a first complete draft of the disc together last month, in time for our Sweden trip. Four weeks and a few tweaks later, it’s done.

My annual Summer compilation – now in its 10th year! – imagines a world where pop songs, hip-hop hits, indie-pop tunes, Hot Topic emo-schlock and the occasional country song are all equal in the eyes of God and the Top 40. But Summer is only as good as the songs floating through the ether that year. Over at Billboard magazine, chart-watchers are buzzing about a return to centrist pop in 2006, thanks to the democratizing influence of iTunes. As my friends all know, I live and die for centrist pop, but when said pop takes the form of James Blunt or “Bad Day,” I’ll gladly go back to the world where Fitty and Gwen duked it out.

As a music year, 2006 hasn’t been awful, just kind of meh. I’d say it compares most closely with 1998: plenty of amusing records on the radio (in ‘98: “Gone ’til November,” “Are You That Somebody?” “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” “Ray of Light,” “One Week”), but with a general sense of in-between-ness – a feeling that we’ve left one pop mini-era behind and are awaiting the advent of the next one.

There is one big difference between 1998 and 2006: this year has produced one true stunner, a single for the ages. It towers head, shoulders and torso over this year’s musical landscape – so much so, that I had to include it twice.

 

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M FOR MILESTONE

    The release of Rolling Stone’s 1,000th issue is a major event – for me: I got my first RS writing assignment! Try my generation-spanning rock trivia! (And marvel at how I got hacked.)

Twenty years ago – 20 years and three months, to be exact – my pimply, 14-year-old self came home from school to find the first issue of my new Rolling Stone subscription on the bed in my room. It wasn’t the first issue I’d seen. When I was 12, I had scandalized my parents by buying a Rolling Stone from a newsstand; within weeks, I was asking my Dad questions about what the term “self-abuse” meant, prompting my Mom to inform me that this magazine was not for me. But by my freshman year of high school, Mom and Dad had given in and let me subscribe.

Rolling Stone, Issue #467

Issue #467, the one lying on my bed that day, didn’t have one of Rolling Stone’s iconic, Zeitgeist-defining, single-personality covers. My first issue instead celebrated the induction of the first crop of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which was spearheaded, not at all incidentally, by RS editor Jann Wenner). On that cover were acts dating back to the ’50s, men famous enough to be known by one name: Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, Ray, Fats, Sam, Little.

Looking back, that cover was a pretty apt introduction to Rolling Stone: here was a magazine that was going to teach me the history of rock, whether I liked it or not.

Within months, I knew I wanted to write for this magazine someday.

Within a couple of years, I adopted the too-cool, snarky-teen sense that these old farts didn’t always know what they were talking about, especially when it came to new rock or hip-hop.

Who’d have guessed that two decades later, I would finally write something for Rolling Stone, and become an old fart, all at the same time?

 

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QUARTS OF MILK, OR PIECES OF PICASSO?

    The single, or the album: what is the unit of measure for music? The industry’s attempt to limit sales of hits on iTunes is just the latest battle in an endless war.

Imagine, for a moment, that supermarkets only carried milk by the gallon.

If you love milk or have kids, you probably wouldn’t mind – growing boys and girls drink it by the thermos-load. But the quart of milk makes much more sense if you’re single, or part of a childless couple, like me. Someday, when my wife and I have kids, I’ll buy milk by the gallon. But currently, I only need a splash of milk for my cup of tea in the morning, maybe a half-cup when I’m home on weekends and eating cereal. My wife doesn’t use milk much at all. At our consumption rate, if we bought milk by the gallon, we’d be throwing out a good deal of spoilage.

So, if supermarkets only offered milk by the gallon, I would either be complaining, finding someone who’d sell me milk by the quart, or throwing a good deal of money away. Or – just maybe – I’d learn to do without milk in my tea.

 

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IT’S HARD OUT HERE FOR A WINNER

    In defense of the pimped-out Oscar winner for Best Original Song.

This is now seriously old news, but it’s still on my mind because a colleague at work was bitching with me about the Oscars just the other day. There we were, commiserating about the Crash upset over the indisputably superior Brokeback Mountain, when things turned awkward, as they have for me several times in Oscar chats over the last three weeks: I found myself, yet again, defending Three 6 Mafia’s Best Song win.

This year’s results prompted more Monday-morning quarterbacking than any Academy Awards in recent history, and with good reason. Even Brokeback scribe Annie Proulx got into the hateration.

But there were two big awards upsets that night, and the one that happened an hour before Jack Nicholson uttered, “Crash – whoa!” has gotten far less press but seems to have pissed people off nearly as much. If you dig through the message boards at the big Oscar sites, you’ll find a slew of vitriolic complaints not only about Crash’s upset, but about “the most egregious undeserved Oscar,” Best Song winner “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle and Flow . They call it “a piece of garbage…noxious effluvium,” “hypocritical tripe…misogynistic, racist, ludicrous,” “a poor effort to be ‘hip’ and with-it.”

The peeved Proulx sucked Three 6 Mafia into her whirring blades of disgust, too, bemoaning the “atrocious act from Hustle and Flow, Three 6 Mafia’s violent rendition of ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’….” Violent? She makes it sound like they were shivving backup singers live onstage.

 

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