A formalist experiment: forty words on each track in the Top 40. Links will be to videos on Youtube where possible: apologies if they break for non-UK readers. Sentence fragments likely. Hand-waving vagueness inevitable. Askbox open if you seek expansion.
#40. Storm Queen - Look Right Through (MK Remix)
One paradox of EDM is the tension between being the most human music - it’s for dancing, for being visceral - and the most robotic. And here we have a lyric about being social but unknown: dancefloor as existential party.
#39. Ellie Goulding - Burn
Cowell-esque church bells and winner’s song triumphalism awkwardly abuts urban club cred my generation anthem, run through by Ellie’s trilling warble. We light it up, they can’t put it out: who are these sides? Few clues; rebels with no cause.
#38. Lady Gaga - Do What U Want (feat. R. Kelly)
Sex as resignation; exulting in surrender of bodies but not selves: not invalid as sexual expression, but deeply problematic as pop, even before R. Kelly arrives proclaiming not to give a fuck. I’m inclined to agree, and turn him off.
#37. Calvin Harris & Alesso - Under Control (feat. Hurts)
More EDM existential tensions, as him from Hurts philosophises on the nature of freedom while Calvin craps out another synth stab melody line. The build is exciting: the climax resolves into the same old shit. Such is every youth revolution.
#36: Little Mix - Move
I’m a sucker for something percussion led. Clicks, claps, cowbell and snaps under vocal harmonies, an ascending bassline builds to an endlessly deferred climax. But that’s okay, these ladies are happy in their groove; they just want to, well, move.
#35: Chase & Status - Alive (feat. Jacob Banks)
See, for urban existentialism you can’t beat a breakbeat: with that rattling along at 180bpm, what lyric wouldn’t sound like a desperate howl against a careless world hurtling on without you? Pop becomes a pyrrhic victory. Astoundingly bleak video, too. Grim.
#34: Ed Sheeran - I See Fire
It feels like an indictment of Ed Sheeran’s career that he’s a good fit for Hobbity bucolic folk fantasy. But these are the imperial years of cider drinking earnestness in chart pop, and here its godhead pays back a debt.
#33: Miley Cyrus - Adore You
Did the tweenage Miley deal in this kind of exaggerated melismatic cooing (“yo-o-o-o-o-ou”) anywhere? I ask because it’s almost the only point of interest I can find in this weirdly inert ballad; such a slow jam it’s more like jelly.
#32: OneRepublic - If I Lose Myself
Aural wallpaper in eight shades of beige, so smooth-milled as to be impossible to get any kind of grip upon. The U2 influence is obvious in every sense. Stadium-ready, in that it’s vast and empty, a container for other experiences.
#31: Shakira - Can’t Remember To Forget You (feat. Rihanna)
Could probably only be disappointing with that artist credit, but it’s disappointing in an unexpected way - who expected ska-rock, from either party? Bouncy and propulsive yet somehow unsatisfying. Not nearly as absurd as these elements together should have demanded.
#30: One Direction - Story Of My Life
Mumford tactics are used in support of an oddly ambiguous and troubled lyric, with the titular hinting at world-weariness. “I spend her love until she’s broke inside.” Quite the reversal from the prior story of love as your self-esteem’s salvation.
#29: Lorde - Royals
As statement of intent, astounding: one thing to make pop this disaffected aged 17, but quite another to debut with a claim to “queen bee” in a chart with Beyonce in. I’ve criticisms aplenty, but you gotta salute the ambition.
#28: AWOLNATION - Sail
Trip-hop’s unholy mall-squatting union with nu-metal is unsurprisingly angst-drenched. “Maybe I should kill myself” is bracingly direct for this kind of thing, but every generation needs its screaming emotional venting twinned with world-ending bass vworp to terrify its parents with.
#27: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - White Walls (feat. Schoolboy Q & Hollis)
For all Macklemore and Lewis’ evident social conscience, they sure love some ostentatious appropriation. Undoubtedly tongues are buried firmly in cheek, but it’s not like hip-hop’s conspicuous consumption wasn’t always done with a sense of irony as well as defiance.
#26: Avicii - Wake Me Up
More Mumford influence, here visiting anthem house and settling right in with scarcely any need to redecorate. Acoustic arpeggios build seamlessly into the standard stabby synth-o’-clock climax. Again the lyric has a weariness that gives the lie to the euphoria.
#25: Katy Perry - Roar
Consciously evokes the none-more-80s training montage classic to sell a straightforward empowerment anthem. “I stood for nothing/ So I fell for everything” is a neat, clever couplet, but sadly swamped in the mixed metaphor salad and full-on yawping chorus pileup.
#24: Beyoncé - XO
Via a drowsy, growly delivery from Beyonce, a bad-taste Challenger sample and a “light’s out” motif, we arrive at end-of-night as apocalypse, love’s consummation as the last spark prior to oblivion. To which? Enh. Nihilism’s not my flavour of Bey.
#23: Kid Ink - Show Me (feat. Chris Brown)
The inversion of Show Me Love’s defiant female petition for emotional sincerity into a male desire and entitlement to sex is gross enough. And then we add noted domestic abuser Chris Brown. Chris, no-one’s got to show you fucking anything.
#22: Idina Menzel - Let It Go
Disney, obviously, but as chart pop this clashes intriguingly with the fire as self-actualization metaphor prevalent in earlier entries. This is still self-expression, but as individuality and isolation rather than communality - the existential impulse fully embraced. As musical theatre!
#21: Little Mix - Little Me
The instinct is to condemn this, for trading in platitudes and false redemption for scars running longer and deeper than three minutes of girlband pop could ever touch. But fuck that. This needs to be here. Better over-earnest than cynical.
#20: Bastille - Of The Night
A seeming attempt to redeem 90s Eurodance by making it DARKER AND ANGRIER. Comics fans know there’s nothing more 90s than rebooting old properties by making them dark and angsty. Possibly Bastille knew that, but it’s funnier if they didn’t.
#19. Martin Garrix - Animals
The star here is the drop into the clicky noise, lifted straight from the Neptunes. With horror movie screams, car alarms and the motherfuckin’ distorted vocal, this manages a genuine menace. And where’d our urban existentialist nihilism be without fear?
#18. Tinie Tempah & Labrinth - Lover Not A Fighter
Not their best work, but I could listen to endless hours of Tinie rasping “Yeaaaaaah” in that inimitable fashion over Labrinth’s ooh-shiny-things kitchen sink production. And “In my vintage eBay watch, that’s why I feel like the Hoff” is excellent.
#17. OneRepublic - Counting Stars
At least it rolls right along, pushed by that oom-pah drum beat. No idea what it means, though: some cod-utopian thing about forgetting the money, maaaaan? To which, ugh. It’s easy to watch it burn when you have spare, Tedder.
#16: Elyar Fox - Do It All Over Again
Bieber’s broken, we need a replacement. To YouTube! I quite like the slap bass mixed with wub wub vworping, even if it’s just cynically taking California Gurls and sticking dubstep in it because. I hate more or less everything else.
#15: Eminem - The Monster (feat. Rihanna)
Last time these two were portraying an abusive relationship. Here it’s the same, but between Marshall and himself. Self-abuse, then, and it’s masturbatory indeed - having the outlet is healthy, but that doesn’t mean you should reward it with attention.
#14: Sub Focus - Turn Back Time
Given the title, this is appropriately the most retro feeling of the current chart’s glut of anthem house. It’s all here: the cut-up diva vocal, the piano loops - did I catch someone going “jack your body” just then? Blimey.
#13: Busta Rhymes - Thank You (feat. Q-Tip, Kanye West & Lil Wayne)
Busta and Tip swap spit(ing) over a loop of funk piano for seemingly no-one’s enjoyment but their own. Yeezy and Weezy pop in to say hi. Hey, everyone’s having fun. Minimal in every sense, utterly inessential but hard to hate.
#12: Beyoncé - Drunk In Love (feat. JAY Z)
Bey and Jay take a relationship performed in music to it’s logical extreme and just make a song-as-sex-tape. Good for them, although a surfboard dick sounds painful, frankly. Anna Mae lyric is unacceptable though, don’t care if it’s their kink.
#11: Ellie Goulding - How Long Will I Love You
The Waterboys wrote this as full folk, fiddles and all, coasting on Celtic charm. Ellie opts to strip it back, exposing the lyric for the insipid glurge it is. Love may be stupid, but love songs don’t need to be.
#10: Vance Joy - Riptide
Ho Hey, ho hum. It’s an uptempo jangle at least, and there are worse things than scraggly white dudes with acoustics singing nonsense (“left hand man” why, exactly?) about their dream ladies. I just can’t think of any right now.
#9: Matrix & Futurebound - Control (feat. Max Marshall)
The joy of drum n’ bass to me is the kinetic rush of breakbeats stampeding to the horizon, but the icy, melancholy synths and the cooing, wistful vocal is a cold shower where I wanted an aphrodisiac. Too much control.
#8: Fuse ODG - Million Pound Girl (Badder Than Bad)
Exchange rate aside, a million pound girl sounds less glamorous than a million dollar one. But that’s kind of the point: this is both cheap and cheerful. Cloyingly so, but I can’t hate it, especially in this sullen January chart.
#7: Jason Derulo - Trumpets
In the video Jason is repeatedly cockblocked by a voyeuristic marching band. This isn’t even in the top ten most ridiculous things about this song. No idea how far Jason’s aware just how ridiculous it is, but either way, hilarious.
#6: Avicii - Hey Brother
Why the heck doesn’t Dan Tyminski rate an artist credit when he’s the entire thing for full minutes? A decision as cynical as making this mish mash-up of meaningless fauxspirational folk bromides and half-hearted house hand-claps in the first place.
#5: Pitbull - Timber (feat. Ke$ha)
Exactly the opposite way to fuse country music and EDM: take two of the least po-faced artists around right now and embrace the cheesy gimmickry inherent in the enterprise. Still not actually, you know, good, but at least it’s honest.
#4: Neon Jungle - Braveheart
That thunderous farting bass is excellently disruptive, and the Japanese counting and rap break provide welcome hints of personality. But the rest sounds like the dance remix of itself, and just isn’t as brash as I want it to be.
#3: The Vamps - Wild Heart
Oddly, the one track in the chart where I actually like the bluegrass banjo twiddling. If only it were much higher in the mix. As in, drowning the rest. Also: other than burning in sunlight, how are these boys vamps?
#2: Pharrell Williams - Happy
In a chart clogged with miserablism that pretends profundity, no way I’m not falling for something this breezy. You’ll get swept away or it’ll blow right past you, cause nothing’s going to spoil it’s day. And right now, I’m happy.
#1: Clean Bandit - Rather Be (feat. Jess Glynne)
At once of a piece with the diva house trend and standing apart, pointing another way: those playful bloops, these brightening strings, that wide-eyed piano riff! All redeeming the simple sentiment of the lyric. In the end, there’s joy enough.