Tuesday, February 22, 2011

98 The Hard Way, Part 1: One Hit Wonders (March-May)

The lure of one hit wonders is a hard one to resist. They're a definite mark of their era, showcasing exactly what was popular for a short period of time, and more often than not the songs lumped in under that umbrella are diverse enough to make for an interesting journey. So what better place to start this massive project off than by revisiting 1998 at it's most flash in the pan and disposable? This is the second of four posts dissection the year's one hit wonders. Enjoy.

Jimmy Ray “Are You Jimmy Ray?” (#13, March 14th)

I think it says a lot about this song that my most vivid memory related to it is of my scout leader ineptly playing a guitar at camp and punctuating each bout of attempted chords with an equally tuneless shout of 'WHO WANTS TO KNOW? WHO WANTS TO KNOW?' It was a joke, but it so perfectly encapsulated the song he was emulating that I always hear it over the song proper. To be fair, it's not like the song was some bastion of seriousness in the first place. It was stupid shit back then, and if anything the years have been excessively unkind to it...and yet even though I can't say that any other song I'm gonna touch in this project is worse on a purely musical level, I don't think that there's a more fun song in the mix than this. Seriously, it's one of those Doop cases where I know that the song in question is awful but it's so aware of its own awfulness that it starts to read as charming. [1]

Loreena McKennitt “The Mummer's Dance” (#18, March 21st)

I assumed that this song's ubiquity was a Canada-only thing, so colour me surprised that the states were equally under the thrall of this one. Not that I necessarily blame them, as far as Celtic crossover material you can't do much better than McKennitt, though compared to her earlier material this is quite a bit weaker. Hold this, or really anything on The Book of Secrets up against the holy grails of The Visit and Mask and the Mirror and it falls well short, but hold it up against what was actually popular at the time and it's hard to be that hard on it. [8]

Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz “Déjà Vu” (#9, March 28th)

Who'd have thought that Steely Dan would be the basis for so much of the 90s' best pop music? Between this, the similarly awesome and similarly “Black Cow” indebted “Daydreamin'” (more on that later) and All Saints' “I Know Where It's At” – plus “The Man Don't Give a Fuck” if you go a bit wider in your definition of pop music – there's a 3 year corridor where the key to being better than your chosen genre was to sample possibly the least hip band in history. Fortunately none of the aforementioned hits do wrong by Fagen n Becker, least of all “Déjà Vu” which takes the, admittedly pretty damn funky, intro riff from “Black Cow,” blows it up to stadium-filling proportions and uses it to back one of the better populist “NY REPRESENT!” anthems of our time. Come on, if you were at all musically conscious in 1998 you're singin' the chorus right now, admit it. [9]

The Verve “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (#12, April 4th)

To people of a certain age – namely my age – the opening strains of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” are inexorably tied to the final scene of that late 90s cinematic masterpiece Cruel Intentions, where...ah fuck it. I doubt that the song's success had much to do with that movie, if I remember right it was already fairly ubiquitous before the film was released, but in my head the first image that pops up when I hear that (stolen) orchestral swell isn't of Richard Ashcroft bumping into everyone as he walks down the street, it's of Reese Witherspoon at the height of her attractiveness. Does this affect my opinion of the song much? A bit, I can't deny that it's a good song any more than I can deny that The Verve has an album and a half full of better ones, but at it's core it's the sort of downtrodden anthem that it's easy to see the public latching on to. I don't love it as much as some, but it's definitely not in the lower tier here. [7]

Sylk-E. Fyne ft. Chill “Romeo and Juliet” (#6, April 18th)

Easiest way to get a modicum of crossover success if you're a second-or-lower string female rapper? Thug love duet. People go crazy for that shit. Unfortunately it's hard to do much within that context unless you've got some sort of personality or a different angle to take it from. Ms. Fine may be moderately talented, and “Romeo and Juliet” may be moderately catchy, but she just doesn't have enough charisma to pull it off anything better than average. Chill fares no better as her male counterpart, especially given that he's relegated to a chorus-only guest thus losing the one aspect of the thug love duet that can salvage the least interesting ones of all – gender-based sparring. [4]

Marcy Playground “Sex and Candy” (#8, April 18th)

My affection for this one goes a bit beyond the rational. I know that it's beyond rudimentary, borderline nonsensical and pretty much a rip off of Pavement at their laziest, but it's also catchy, which counts for a lot, and charming in it's own way. Plus as nonsensical as the lyrics might be they do kind of get the general feel of wandering around downtown after taking something maybe you shouldn't have and being way over your head. And I'm sure that if scientists found a way to bottle the essence of 1998 it would look like, in order, double cherry pie, disco superfly and disco lemonade. [8]

Canibus “Second Round K.O.” (#8, April 25th)

I know this was only a hit because of the feud it continued between Canibus and LL Cool J, but I think the key here is that even if you remove that context it still comes off as a killer song. The beef aspect does add to it though, and it pulls the neat trick of being extremely vicious without resorting to over the top attacks. Think about it; most songs of this ilk are intensely personal, so the attacks can come off as genuinely mean spirited the more personal they get (2Pac's “Hit 'em Up” for example). Canibus sticks mostly to dissing LL as a rapper, not a person, and that works in the track's favour. Sure he does get personal at times, but keeping out of that well adds to the track's appeal for me. There's also that dark, subtle beat that adds a lot to the track without adding too much if that makes sense. [8]

Sparkle ft. R. Kelly “Be Careful” (#32, May 30th)

While I do have a bit of a soft spot for the old he said-she said song structure, like the aforementioned thug love duet it needs to have a bit of personality injected into it. Sparkle doesn't really do that here, she doesn't register as anything other than the next in an infinite line of second string female R 'n' B singers with nice but not exactly distinctive voices. R. Kelly does his best to provide the track with a bit more zest – I like his little asides during his verses – but the damage is already done by then and even if you're nodding along to the admittedly opulent but also draggy beat you've checked out mentally by the time he shows up. [5]

Tomorrow: Lots of R 'n' B acts get the OHW distinction, but Timbaland shows them all how it's done. Also, the British invasion, teenybopper version.

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