FFWDing to the Best Part: “…Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears (1998)

Late 1998. Ahh, times were free and easy. We knew about Monica Lewinsky, sure, but we could still meet our loved ones at the gate at LAX (or, in my case, Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky). Meanwhile in pop-culture land, a fresh-faced Britney Spears exploded all over the scene, uncomfortably sexy and questionably innocent, and … quite frankly … not all that vocally talented, but WHO CARED.

Her first — and still possibly her best — single was written by Max Martin, who arguably has had more influence on modern pop music than Bono, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Jon Bon Jovi, Jay-Z, and Simon Cowell COMBINED. And I’m barely exaggerating. This Wiki reads like a what’s-what of the Billboard Top 40 from the past 15 or so years.  The dude may be formulaic, but he has found the formula for surefire catchiness. Which includes having a slightly unpredictable “Best Part” of every song.  (With the possible exception of ‘Slam Dunk [Da Funk]’ by 5ive … eh, it was early in his career.)

Best part? 3:22. This is a rock-solid catchy jam from the three-note electric piano intro forward, and three minutes later, we’re fully on board the Britney Jean train. At this moment toward the song’s climactic conclusion, she hits us (no pun intended) with the first part of the hook — “Hit me baby …” — but leaves us hanging, only to segue into one more last “confession” of her life-threatening “loneliness.”  It’s a simple little surprise that keeps the listener engaged through the final “time” (or the school bell, if you happen to be gawking at the video).

 

Two years later, with her “Stronger” single from sophomore effort Oops! … I Did It Again, she’ll call back to her first single:

My loneliness ain’t killing me no more
I’m stronger

Good for you, girl. Way to be a survivor. Of course, there would be miles to go — and by “miles,” I mean marriages, shaved heads, interventions, questionable gas-station-bathroom-etiquette, mental breakdowns, poor fashion choices, very public breakups, need I  go on — but we’re all still rooting for you. XOXO.

My Top 11 Songs of 2011 (In Which I Welcome Back Avril and Britney)

Another year, another metric ton of junk from Rihanna. Chicago lost its last remaining alternative-rock station, Amy Winehouse succumbed to the age-27 curse, and R.E.M. called it quits. And yet I, ever the grumpy old curmudgeon regarding today’s music, found eleven songs to which I could tap my foot. See how many of them you agree with, hmmm?

1. Tonight Tonight, Hot Chelle Rae

Poppy, infectious, and effervescent, this was the song of the summer. But it’s not quite as upbeat as it sounds if you dig into the lyrics – ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it, but watch how good I’ll fake it.’ He’s overcompensating, folks, after a ‘really, really messed up week.’ Shows how far a major key and a catchy hook can take you. And the tongue-in-cheek lyrics are part of the reason why this ditty tops my list and pure good-time garbage such as anything by LMFAO didn’t hit my radar in any positive sense. (Side note: could LMFAO have a stupider name? Way to demonstrate that you want to have staying power. Idiots.)

2. What the Hell, Avril Lavigne

Remember in 2007 when Avril Lavigne reappeared with the catchy-as-hell ‘Girlfriend’ and everyone was all, ‘What? She’s back?’ Well, it happened again. Hiatus. New single out of nowhere (this time with a Max Martin intervention). Catchy as hell. And replete with, as is her way, a smidgen of attitude. The scale progression in the pre-chorus (“…on your knees, begging please…”) is my favorite part. This is a karaoke white whale I will never be able to achieve. Who knew Avril had such range?

3. Til the World Ends, Britney Spears

It’s Britney, bitch. And she emerged arguably almost better than ever in the spring of 2011. Once again, helped along by pop-music wunderkind Max Martin (who incidentally was behind ‘Baby … One More Time,’ ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy,’ ‘Oops…’ ‘3,’ ‘If U Seek Amy,’ and more), Miss Brit had the catchiest chorus of the summer until Hot Chelle Rae came along. She loses a couple of points for succumbing to the stale ‘dancing despite the approaching apocalypse’ theme but we’ll just ignore the lyrics and, you know, dance despite the approaching apocalypse.

4. I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl, The Wavves

Whoa, this one is so underground, it doesn’t even have an ‘official’ video! Like many Saturday Night Live skits, this song is just about 90 seconds too long. But before the monotony sets in, it’s an uplifting power-pop ode to a certain Foo-Fighting, grunge-to-the-masses-bringing gentleman. Wonder if they ever got their wish.

5. Glad You Came, The Wanted

I imagine this danceable track is kind of like what would have happened if Oasis had ever teamed up with the repeatedly aforementioned Max Martin. Near-perfect British pop. You’ll be glad you listened.

6. Born This Way, Lady Gaga

That attention-hungry fame monster (!), I initially thought when this single ‘dropped.’ It’s an absolute rip-off of ‘Express Yourself,’ and Lady Gaga is NO Madonna (to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen). But then I grew to realize … ‘Born This Way’ — with its energy and its empowering lyrics — is BETTER than ‘Express Yourself,’ and while Gaga certainly won’t have the legacy that Madonna did and does, she does have better pipes. And I’d bet Ms. Ciccone would say the same.

7. Something to Believe In, Parachute

Okay, this ‘adult-alternative’ pop-rock hit from has faint twinges of Christian rock, but sometimes that’s okay, especially if it’s a jam that inspires. Plus, the guys met at UVa.

8. Changing, The Airborne Toxic Event

This song sounds like it was written for an Apple commercial, which is to say it is memorable, approachable indie rock. And it strangely wasn’t in an Apple commercial that I can recall (though Google tells me it was in a trailer for Crazy Stupid Love). The guys seem a lot more cheerful than their last big hit, which had even the world’s cutters begging them to cheer up already.

9. Down By the Water, The Decemberists

A new song with an old-timey feel, which is probably due to the harmonica and the tight harmonies. It’s CSNY for the 21st century. Any ‘new’ song I can share with my parents is typically a winner for me, and there hasn’t been a decent one (that they hadn’t already heard in an Apple commercial) since ‘Float On.’

10. Super Bass, Nicki Minaj

Yeah, the supremely self-referential Nicki is a tad annoying and I wish her rapping vocals came in a few notes lower down the scale. Slightly less chipmunky. But she can spit rhyme with the best of them (‘best of them’ = Eminem) and the chorus is unforgettable and groove-tastic.

11. Bad – The CAB

For some reason, it annoys me that this group capitalizes their name. Who do they think they are, DAUGHTRY? This song wasn’t the best of the year, but it has a taste of boy-band catchy pop flavor with a chewy power pop center. Would be interested in hearing more from these guys as their sound (hopefully) matures.

Honorable mention 1: Friday, Rebecca Black

I admit, this is a demonstration of everything that is wrong with American music today. Lyrics so simple they border on nonsensical. Criminal levels of autotuning. The repeated use of ‘party’ in different parts of speech. But damn, did it make me smile. And ultimately, it’s a good 15-minutes-of-fame story. At least Rebecca’s original was better than the horrendous Glee version. What the eff happened to Glee, by the way? What an appalling fall off a cliff.

Honorable mention 2: ‘Blue Tip,’ The Cars

The Cars released Move Like This this year – their first studio album in 24 years. This track-one cut was the best on the album and yet … it wasn’t very good. Still have to give Ric and the boys an A for effort. At least they are getting back out there.

And that … is it. Here’s to catchier pop, more interesting alt-rock, and the reemergence of late-90s favorites (who aren’t Enrique Iglesias) in 2012. Harvey Danger, I’m waiting for YOU.