Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TUN3R's Top 10 Pop Hooks in Rotation from 2008

One of the things I'm always on the lookout for is the next addictive Pop Hook. Pop Hook's by their nature tend to be ephemeral and can be annoying after a while. I once heard a story that George Harrison wrote the song "I've got my mind set on you" to prove that it's trivial to write an addictive Pop Hook. Harrison actually never wrote the song (it was written by Rudy Clark), but to me, that's like Albert Einstein saying that science is easy if you just give it a shot. But I sort of get Harrison's point. What I will say is this: in the same way that Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt tend to have access to better scripts than say Christian Slater, many big pop stars tend to have access to better Pop Hooks than your average performer. But there's something Darwinian about Top 40 charts which allows so many unknowns to appear, and in fact I would say that the Top 40 depends on an unending stream of "One Hit Wonders" to consistently engage listeners.

Although I'm not a Musicologist by training, I reckon that the first person who could regularly crank out Top 40 Pop Hooks was Johann Sebastian Bach. In an interview in Wired magazine, Brian Eno put forth the argument that "structured" music was necessary during the baroque and classical eras because you might only be able to attend a live performance once in a lifetime and would want to get your money's worth. He went on to point out that Jazz music was only possible through the invention of the phonograph because it was possible to listen to the same piece of music several times over, and thus begin to appreciate its nuance. To prove his point, he placed a tape recorder at a busy urban intersection and recorded 20 minutes of audio. He listened to the tape at least 50 times and noticed that what previously sounded random began to sound structured. It's cool stuff, but today I'm here to talk about Pop Hooks, and lay out my list.

What makes a great Pop Hook? I don't think there are any hard and fast rules, but I'll list a few basic criteria:

  1. You should derive enjoyment the first, second, or third time listening to the song.
  2. You should be able to listen to it at least 50 times before growing sick of it.
  3. Young children should also be able to appreciate the melody.
  4. There should be some aspect that is unique and distinguished to the Hook. Many Pop Hooks sound recycled from previous songs, and are already spent by the first listen.
  5. Often a Pop Hook benefits from a unique dovetailing of the singer's voice with the melody. As such, Pop Hook's can even emerge from unlikely sources like Ozzy Osborne. You can't separate "Crazy Train"s melody from Ozzy's voice. To do so would surely undermine its Pop Hook.
  6. The Pop Hook is in a way modular, and can be easily repurposed into other genres, such as: uptempo dance music. You'll often hear baroque and classical melodies repurposed into modern dance and hip hop songs.
  7. In rare circumstances, lyrics and the story behind them can drive a Pop Hook.
If you're hunting for Pop Hook's, a good place to go is the Dance Hit stations. Stations that stand out for me are: Energy 98, iPartyRadio, Maxxima, and Lolliradio Dance. If you're more into alternative music, an excellent station is Pig Radio which really stands on its own, but Soma's Indie Pop Rocks! ain't bad either. And I would be remiss not to mention both Luxuria and Soma's Illinois Street Lounge which live in a parallel Pop Hook universe. But this is only a tiny smattering of picks, and many other similarly excellent stations are out there which I haven't listed (but feel free to ask me).

Without further ado I present to you my picks for Top 10 Pop Hooks in rotation from 2008:

Ten: Because I Love you (September)
What is it about Scandinavian singers and world class Pop Hooks, I'll never know. Actually, having lived in Copenhagen for 3 years, I do have some theories which I'll blog about another time. In this department, honourable mention should go to Lucky by Lucky Twice which would be on this list if there was enough room, but there's not. Better luck next time Lucky Twice.

Nine: Just Dance (Lady GaGa & Colby O'Donis)
This is probably the most recognizable song on this list, and some of you may be sick of hearing this song by now. Sure it's been overplayed, but I still enjoy it. While many songs with great Pop Hooks struggle to fill time between the Hook, this song never feels like it's killing any time. It's what I admire about great bands like The Beatles, The Pixies, Nirvana, and The Strokes.

Eight: The Longest Road (Morgan Page remixed by Daedmus)
There's a line in the movie "The Blues Brothers" where Belushi and Akyroyd arrive at a bar they are scheduled to play at. They ask the owner what kind of music they normally play. She responds by saying: "We play both kinds of music: Country and Western." It's a joke, but I've always wondered if there is an element of truth to it. Is there such a thing as "Western music" that is distinct from "Country Music". I dunno. But if there was, I would peg The Longest Road as one of the best "Western" songs I've ever heard. In fact the very first time I heard this song on the radio, I paused and thought "Wow! That's a very cool sound I haven't quite heard before." I once drove from San Francisco to Toronto, and this song reminds me of driving through the stretches through Nevada and Utah.

Seven: 4 AM (Kaskade)
As anyone who knows me, Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies of all time. The soundtrack by Vangelis is untouchable. As Moby described it:
The contrast makes it: a relentlessly gritty film with this ethereal music on top of it. Without the music, the movie would have been good. But with the music, it was close to perfect.
While I hesitate to compare Kaskade to Vangelis, there is something very Blade Runner-esque about 4 AM that appeals to me. In fact, if you were to replace the end credit song of Blade Runner with this one (perhaps in some new Full/Alternate/Fan/Directors Cut), I wouldn't take offence.

Six: The One (Sharam & Daniel Bedingfield)
Award goes to The One for the least time wasted to get to the Pop Hook. What is it about male falsetto singers and Pop Hooks? I once saw a movie called Farinelli about a Castrato singer (of the same name). That's right, there was a time where people would sacrifice having children to achieve the perfect voice. We don't have Castrati singers anymore, and the best grown men can do is a falsetto voice. There may be some hope for us Castrati deprived listeners. I recently read that researchers in Turkey have located a puberty gene, and there are actually rare instances of people who can never hit puberty. Hey, where there's crisis there's opportunity.

Five: Sensual (PhonJaxx)
If you enjoy listening to music while having sex, you may appreciate this song.

Four: Underneath (Alanis Morissette - remixed by Morgan Page)
One of the more substantial songs on this list. Alanis has one of those incredibly versatile voices that has its own ability to generate Pop Hooks. Morgan Page's remix nicely re-frames the wonderful Hooks in this richly textured song.

Three: What You Got (Colby O'Donis featuring Akon)
This song is grounded in its narrative and lyrics. From a pure melody perspective there are better songs on this list, but what this song illustrates to me at least, is that the Pop Hook can often transcend melody if it is well supported by the right lyrics. In some ways written poetry pre-dates the musical Pop Hook, and while I'm sure my friends would tease me for saying this - there is some decent poetry in this song.

Two: Your Love Still Haunts Me (Joseph remixed by DJ Bam Bam)
This song is State-of-the-Art for 2008. If you asked me to define what a State-of-the-Art song for 2008 sounds like, I would play Your Love Still Haunts Me. Apologies for the useless circular definition. This song will put you in your own Starship.

One: You You You (James Kakande - remixed by Alex Gaudino)
This song came out in 2006, but is still in rotation on some stations - and rightfully so. It's one of my favourite songs of all time. There is something perfectly effortless, playful, and sentimental about this song that it can often bring a tear of joy to my eye. There are a few perfect songs out there. This is one them.

Looking over this list I've probably missed a lot of big name Pop Hookers. Where's Madonna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce Knowles you ask? I like a lot of this stuff too, but it tends to get overplayed to the point where I'm burned out. But I also find that they tend to be more risk averse and will write songs that are enjoyable after the first or second listen, but burn out after 10-15 listens.

So what's in store for TUN3R in 2009? That would be our iPhone app.

Stay TUN3D.