Back in the halcyon days of the 2010s, it was a semi-annual tradition in The Stranger for me to review the year's best-selling singles, according to Billboard magazine. The twist? I never listened to pop music throughout the year, but rather immersed myself in unconventional music from the past and present. (That is still the case.) So, the Top 20 singles chart was/is alien territory for your blogger.
It was fun (read: excruciating) trying to find positive things to say about this mostly LCD music. After a long hiatus from this exercise in masochism, Slog is resurrecting the concept, albeit with a slight change. This time, I'm going to review 2022's #1 songs, according to US industry bible Billboard. Lorde have mercy...
Taylor Swift, “Anti-Hero” [six weeks at #1]
Let me start by saying that I haven't heard any of the 13 songs under review here in full, because I live a semi-charmed life. So this post's full of off-the-dome, visceral responses... and from an old, cranky motherfucker, to boot. Onward!
There's no avoiding Taylor Swift, if you're a sentient being with an internet connection, but I've done my best to give her songs a wide berth. “Anti-Hero,” from the mega-selling Midnights album, is reputedly one of the favorite songs that Swift's ever written. Over a medium-energy electronic-pop backdrop, Swift affectionately punches herself in the ego (“I'm the problem” figures in the chorus) while offering laughable self-deprecation such as “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby/And I'm a monster on the hill.” Admittedly, this line—“Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism/Like some kind of congressman?”—isn't bad for a #1 single. Swift has obvious—if bland—melodic and vocal skills and her scheme to remake her songs to win back complete rights to them is admirable, but I don't understand the mass mania that has followed her for these many years.
Sam Smith & Kim Petras, “Unholy” [one week at #1]
British soul singer Sam Smith is nonbinary, German singer-songwriter Kim Petras is trans, and I'm a cis-het male who appreciates the stark, bass-heavy electro eeriness that serves as the foundation for a track about doing illicit, debauched things in the Body Shop (double entendre noted). “Unholy” seems an unlikely tune to occupy the top of the charts, and its queerness of identity and sonics suggests an opening of the music-consuming public's mind.
Steve Lacy, “Bad Habit” [three weeks at #1]
I remember first seeing Steve Lacy's name in music publications and doing a double take: How was the deceased avant-jazz soprano saxophonist releasing new music? Alas, this Steve Lacy is a different cat; he plays guitar and sings backup for the Internet and has produced tracks for Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and others. “Bad Habit” springs into life with buoyant vigor, as Lacy invokes feel-good, young-love joints by Ray Parker Jr. and the Jackson 5, but filtered through 21st-century emo pop and a vocal delivery that's positively courtly. Although I'm not going to run out to the digital record store to buy the FLAC, I admit this song is almost as infectious as Parker Jr.'s “You Can't Change That.” (Ask your parents.)
Nicki Minaj, “Super Freaky Girl” [one week at #1]
Big, honkin' Rick James samples (see the title) fluff up this lubriciously funky vehicle for Nicki Minaj to hype her prodigious sexual prowess. The 40-year-old Trinidad and Tobago-born rapper will never exhaust this fascinating subject and the public will never tire of her lewd innuendoes and ribald boasts. If only we could harness Minaj's self-esteem for an energy source...
Beyoncé, “Break My Soul” [two weeks at #1]
One can acknowledge Beyoncé's musical talent, aesthetics, and business acumen (if not her alleged exploitative employment practices) while still not being moved one bit by the habitually chart-dwelling R&B artist's music. I'm proof of that, though I am in a minuscule minority. But you lot love her to pieces, and I'm very happy for you. “Break My Soul” from the Renaissance album sounds like the sort of politely bumpin' midtempo house track that you could have heard in any set by any mid-level DJ at any midsize dance club in any midsize American city over the last 30 years. This song about Bey's indomitable spirit is decidedly mid. Deee-lite did this sort of thing with much more panache in the '90s.
Lizzo, “About Damn Time” [two weeks at #1]
With DNA siphoned from Chic's “Good Times” (never a bad thing), “About Damn Time” uses elegant disco maneuvers as leverage for Lizzo to relate how she's coming out of a stressful period and is ready to celebrate her newfound wellness. She opens with “It's bad bitch o'clock, yeah/It's thicc thirty/I've been through a lot/But I'm still flirty,” and if you're not hooked, you need to reassess some things about your life.
Drake feat. 21 Savage, “Jimmy Cooks” [one week at #1]
This is Drake's 11th #1 single overall, which is a testament to the American masses' mediocre musical taste in this century. “Jimmy Cooks” is typical charisma-free Drake, lazily flowing over weak snare drums and cymbal taps. “Life is the only thing you need” is the sort of faux-profound homily that might make you nod in agreement if you're stoned to the bone on a multimillionaire's weed. You can hear an attempt at eerie poignancy in the strings and keys, but it sounds ersatz. If I may quote my Drake review in The Stranger from 2017, “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.'”
Future feat. Drake and Tems, “Wait for U” [one week at #1]
Laggard, mewling R&B/rap lite marred by a milquetoast Drake cameo (is there any other kind?). The sample of soulful Nigerian singer Tems's song “Higher” is the only bright spot of this delicate downer.
Jack Harlow, “First Class” [three weeks at #1]
Luxury-loving rap with spare yet lush production, ponderous bass, and clipped, tinny beats from Lil Nas X collaborator Jack Harlow. Jack brags that he can sex you and put you in first-class over a melancholy piano motif. Why does nearly everything in the charts' upper reaches sound like this? Synthetic sadness sells, I guess.
Harry Styles, “As It Was” [15 weeks at #1]
Hey, it's a rock song (sort of)! Rock infamously has become anathema to the loftier realms of the charts in the last decade or so, so when it does break through, it's typically this edgeless strain of it, in the manner of this ditty by ex-One Direction member Harry Styles. Swift tempo'd, sucrose-laden, and meringue-light, “As It Was” passes through ears without leaving a stain of interestingness.
Glass Animals, “Heat Waves” [five weeks at #1]
Described by the never fallible Wikipedia as an “experimental rock band,” Britain's Glass Animals are neither experimental nor even very rock. These quibbles aside, “Heat Waves” took 59 weeks to reach the top of the singles chart, and one marvels at how such a middling track could mount a slow-building, successful campaign such as that. Sounding like an updated Men at Work deep cut, or something equally innocuous, “Heat Waves” appeals to that part of the brain that revels in restrained euphoria, self-pity, and basic-as-fuck “hip-hop” slaps.
Adele, “Easy on Me” [three weeks at #1 in 2022; 10 weeks total]
In 2015, The Stranger bafflingly assigned five writers—including me—to analyze Adele's 25. It was an arduous slog (pun intended, always), and I dearly hoped I'd never have to criticize the British diva's music again. But here we are. As predictable as Lauren Boebert botching the English language while saying something outrageous and stupid, “Easy on Me” is a maudlin, piano-powered ballad. This one's addressed to her son re: how badly she feels about her failed marriage's effect on him. Once again, Adele's in her comfort zone and she ain't never gonna leave it. ZZZZZZ.
Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” [five weeks at #1 in 2022; 11 weeks total]
Said it before, will say it again: 99.3% of all holiday music is a mortal threat to mental health. Originally released in 1994, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a bouncy bauble of grating cheerfulness, but it is superior to most xmas songs in the way that a cavity is better than a root canal.