Every year, I staunchly avoid chart music, mostly out of a desire to maintain optimal mental health. But come December, my editors inevitably tap me to assess the biggest songs of the year gone by, according to Billboard magazine. It's a living. So once again, I enter the gaping maw of mediocrity. Tallyho!
20. "Ride" by Twenty One Pilots
Who now? Boy, am I out of the loop. Judging by "Ride," Twenty One Pilots have set out to make the most watered-down, Caucasoid reggae ever on this Jahforsaken planet. By comparison, UB40 sound like Dadawah. Maybe it's just me, but the naggingly catchy chorus—in which the titular word gets extended to 11 syllables and is buoyed by hollow synthesizer bombast—catapults my misanthropy to Bill Hicks–ian levels.
19. "Me, Myself & I" by G-Eazy x Bebe Rexha
It's about a man—one G-Eazy—who doesn't need people because he has his music. Can you relate? The video shows him angsting out and arguing with his multiple selves at his surprise birthday party, which is full of folks with great bone structure. "If time is money, I need a loan" is pretty clever by Top 20 standards, and Bebe Rexha sings the hook with heartfelt defiance. But the song's premise—middling rapper needs solitude so he can make middling songs that earn him extravagant material goods—isn't helped by his lackluster flow and the off-the-rack R&B melodrama.
18. "Cake by the Ocean" by DNCE
A featherweight fusion of beige funk and innocuous new wave, "Cake by the Ocean" is infectious without being overly cloying—an achievement in Top 20 land. Still, DNCE sound like the B-52s and early Talking Heads, if they had only 7 percent of their personality and quirkiness.
17. "This Is What You Came For" by Calvin Harris featuring Rihanna
Confirms my worst suspicions about mainstream dance music being a wasteland of creativity: expertly manicured "euphoria" synced up with perfectly airbrushed instrumentation and vague, feel-good sentiments. Of course Rihanna sings well, but the track is a melodramatic rave anthem that was surely written by a focus group.
16. "Work from Home" by Fifth Harmony featuring Ty Dolla $ign
For a song that's all about female-centric, steamy innuendos, the music here sure is antiseptic—a plinkety, mid-tempo electro confection heavy on the nudge-wink. The video has more than 1.2 billion views, though, so do know that very attractive women and men and bludgeoningly obvious visual metaphors for sex still exert a powerful hold on the masses.
15. "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" by Mike Posner
The title hints at EDM bombast, but Posner pulls a switcheroo by crafting a mid-1970s folk-pop ballad somewhere between Al Stewart and Rod Stewart. The song is stripped-down, pretty, and poignant, its acoustic guitar and piano entwining in a loving embrace of somber harmony. A rare glimpse of genuine intimacy in the pop chart's upper regions.
14. "My House" by Flo Rida
A funky celebration of home entertainment—in the affable singer/rapper's ornate mansion, featuring his personal bartender and body sushi server. Catchy and superficial AF, "My House" comes decorated with obligatory distended bass drops and half-assed horn charts. The video will give you extreme FOMO.
13. "Needed Me" by Rihanna
I have a hard time differentiating or appreciating popular female R&B vocalists whose melismatic voices I hear on random radios and TV commercials—a malady known as divaphobia. So, Rihanna, I apologize that your world-beating acrobatics move my heart and brain not one scintilla. Take comfort in the fact that at least millions of other Homo sapiens love your panoply of smooth vocal tropes. That being said, the music here is severe, menacing, and odd, like something you'd hear on a 21st-century Björk record.
12. "7 Years" by Lukas Graham
Mawkish, keyboard- and strings-heavy ballad by a Danish quartet, this is a passionate meditation on fleeting time. The singer is notable for his moderately soulful voice and for being the first Scandinavian person I've ever seen who isn't thin and good-looking.
11. "Cheap Thrills" by Sia featuring Sean Paul
The kind of vapid, faux-Caribbean, up-with-music song that makes me want to slice off my ears. Sia—Australia's Alanis Morissette—and Sean Paul sound like they e-mailed in their vocals 3,000 miles away from each other.
10. "Closer" by the Chainsmokers featuring Halsey
First, deduct 50 points for that band name. Second, deduct another 40 points for the quasi-orchestral, manic-pixie-girl, teen-romance ballad that's as calculated as a stadium full of accountants. Deduct another 10 points for a respected label—Columbia, home of Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, et al.—that should know better than to push this sorry pap.
9. "Can't Stop the Feeling!" by Justin Timberlake
JT is a very good blue-eyed soul man with one of earth's truest falsettos, and he and his voice have aged shockingly well. Here, Timberlake animates a pell-mell funk jam that puts an absurd spring in your step, even on the first day of winter (the time of this listening). "Can't Stop the Feeling!" totally earns its exclamation point.
8. "Don't Let Me Down" by the Chainsmokers featuring Daya
Vocalist Daya petulantly begs her partner to be reliable while the Chainsmokers compose the sort of overblown-yet-non-nutritious EDM-lite that garners nine-figure views on VEVO. Makes one yearn for the edgy electronic soap operas of Sneaker Pimps.
7. "Hello" by Adele
Yeah, no. Good-bye. Booyah!
6. "Panda" by Desiigner
With his world-weary, forebodingly flat delivery, Brooklyn MC and Kanye protégé Desiigner recalls mid-1990s Tricky, though everyone else compares him to Future. "Panda" executes the neat trick of sounding eventful even though not much is happening. It's a stark trap scenario—peppy handclaps, bass that should get charged for first-degree murder, riotous "woos," fiercely rolled Rs, faint echoes of the Godfather soundtrack, etc.—with all the gritty paranoia that that implies. Riveting stuff, for mature audiences.
5. "Stressed Out" by Twenty One Pilots
These mooks again... The singer channels Macklemore for some self-deprecating lyrics that lament his lamentable musical skills. Then he waxes nostalgic ("Wish we could turn back time to the good old days / When mama sang us to sleep / But now we're stressed out") over a vanilla, funk-pop backdrop. The drummer has gauged ears and a Manic Panic blood-red fauxhawk and the singer sports a neck tattoo. It's as if Twenty One Pilots were created in a lab to maximally annoy Dave Segal.
4. "Work" by Rihanna featuring Drake
Even if you have innate suspicion for songs that bear songwriting and production credits in the double figures, you have to give it up for "Work." It's a seductive squiggle of a tune about industrious lust, little more than a couple of smeary bass nudges and a couple of dinky synth notes. Not even Drake's novocaine'd "singing" can mar it.
3. "One Dance" by Drake featuring Wizkid & Kyla
When someone as flavor-free as Drake attains staggering popularity, it makes one doubt the concept of evolutionary progress. The best thing this Miracle-Whip-on-Wonder-Bread mofo will ever do is enrich Timmy Thomas by sampling the immortal "Why Can't We Live Together."
2. "Sorry" by Justin Bieber
As past Top 10/Top 20 roundups have proved, I'm not a knee-jerk Bieber hater. But I have my limits. I don't care how cute he is, I just can't hang with self-pitying mewling over uninspired EDM that's saddled with a hobbled-gallop rhythm.
1. "Love Yourself" by Justin Bieber
Canadian multi-platinum-selling bad boy goes "mature." The result is an ultra-spare ballad that's exquisitely crafted, with "tasteful" electric-guitar accompaniment, cheery muted trumpet, and the lightest of beats (a sampled knuckle crack?). It's... nice and kind of dozy for a song that flips a middle finger to an ex.
Well, that's another Top 20 endured. Despite a few (four or five, to be vague) respites of quality, these songs reaffirm my will to keep listening to obscure artists who have as much chance of going mainstream as Trump has of brokering world peace. Sorry if this survey comes off as predictable, but it's nowhere near as predictable as the meretriciousness of our country's biggest pop stars.