Critics argue over rockism and poptimism, but critical errors pop up in every taste ideology — belief in literalism, authenticity and the like can apply no matter the music in question. One unfortunate critical tendency is only to cover music intended for coverage. With any number of structurally noncanonical, shelf-filling product albums released on the market every day, many of them compilations, the failure to cover these makes sense, as they’re rarely any good, but rarely doesn’t mean never. Below find four compilations of various sorts hardly intended for critical scrutiny.
Festival Anthems 2017 (Enhanced)
As corporate trend genres go, I can think of worse options than EDM. Rollercoaster dynamics and bang-boom-pow electrohooks — so delightfully abrasive in their momentum — beat limp, wet power ballads any day.This compilation, associated with no particular festival but recommended for generic events, typifies the genre’s ghastlier tendencies.
I don’t trust complaints that dance music is “site-specific” and thus fails to parse outside the context of dancing at a club or an outdoor festival. Plenty of dance music sounds terrific on headphones, and besides, all music is site-specific — a point I would direct at alternative rock bands who make albums designed to be dissected by critics wearing headphones but fall apart when played outside, in the car, at a party, etc. Calling music site-specific politely masks disapproval for a particular site; I’ll gladly admit my distaste for the scripted modes of reception prevalent at EDM festivals and the music designed for them. These songs aim to inspire large masses of people to jump up and down and scream in unison about how good it is to be alive. Bland singers bellow inspirational platitudes before the drop — as the crunchy instrumental megahook providing a song’s climax and bliss point is called — drowns them out. Received melodic conventions make one song blur into the next without bothering to differentiate itself. Theoretically dancefloor escapism gratifies, but these rhythmically topheavy odes to maximalist kitsch suggest a caricature of catharsis, an empty decontextualized uplift. Tight vacuums of electronic compression, intended to carry the sound through large open spaces, produce loud, blaring ear candy that sounds equally tiresome no matter the environment.
Except possibly for Noah Neiman’s “Make It So Good,” whose sampled high-pitched squeal distinguishes it from the crowd, not a track departs from a formula where the drop in the middle lets you know that now is the time to pump your fist. Triumphalism has reached a nadir.
Fifty Shades Darker: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Universal)
Whatever the merits of the Hollywood blockbuster, the professionalism involved ensures certain degrees of visual sleekness and consistency, and when the soundtracks to such blockbusters eschew genre-hopping, their uniform aural signatures translate those virtues into music. Like the franchise’s first installment, this album apotheosizes the streamlined, downtempo, “dark” style that captivates a generation of moody millennials, and it crackles with spooky excitement.
I won’t comment on the franchise itself, whose films I haven’t seen, except to hazard uninformed suspicions of lousy gender politics and, as with the Twilight films in whose shadow they bask, the cold, drained, affectless failure to qualify as sexy. The soundtrack doesn’t entirely qualify either — slow R&B burners with muted textures and solemn, scowling melodies are arousing only once one has equated sex and pain, sex and emotional trauma, sex and epic struggle. But anyone who cares about romanticism in its modern incarnations must reckon with the prevalence of this ethos in the ears and hearts of young people, and this album is prime erotic melodrama. This stuff is marketed to adolescents for a reason — the stark sonic template, providing a correlative to the danger implicit in romance, matches a romantic spirit of black roses and white dresses that signals a presexual perspective; neophytes on the cusp are most acutely aware of desire’s risk. Thus the best of this music projects generosity as well as a veritable nervous thrill, an aesthetic coldness that dovetails with impressive formal mastery. Where the Weeknd, say, struggles over the course of an album to convince you he believes in self-expression, the multi-artist compilatory format guarantees shtick as its operative mode while proceeding with restrained, deliberate command of tropes and genre. Among other highlights, Kygo’s yearning “Cruise,” Tove Lo’s sly, soaring “Lies in the Dark,” and Halsey’s breathlessly grand “Not Afraid Anymore” flash, glimmer, and ache, subsuming the weepier ballads and orchestral interludes into an extended exercise in softcore theatricality.
Romanticism is best indulged occasionally, just often enough for some healthy fun, and this irresistibly dislikable album scratches the itch. Relish it to the fullest while acknowledging its depiction of romance as knowingly exaggerated for entertainment purposes.
Workout Motivation 2017 (Power Music)
Power Music Workout is one of many fitness-related companies releasing so-called workout mixes unto a market of gym rats eager to sync up their exercises with the beat on their headphones, and every now and then one proves genuinely listenable on its own terms as an album. This one should amuse fans of pop radio, absurd velocity, and the wonderful spirit of novelty.
Cartoon renditions of radio hits make for a weird sort of remix album, one where the varied bodily rhythms across a dancefloor are ignored in favor of incessant, irrepressible perk. The basic principle behind this music is that all songs sound better faster and dinkier; to realize this dream the masterminds in charge of making alterations speed up the songs in question about twice as fast, then substitute sharp, high sheets of keyboard texture for whatever the original instruments were, turbocharging the drums in the process. Often hookless songs are given one, big buzzing electrosaws totally absent from the original, cutting right through the middle of a song (see: Zayn & Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever”); elsewhere already hummable earworms get augmented with extra layers of chewy bounce (see: Twenty One Pilots’ “Heathens”). Lame songs tend to remain so, but that doesn’t really matter because the end result presents less as a song than the musical equivalent of a caffeine pill, a shot of adrenaline to the head, a structure that happens to have lyrics and a tune ready to get kicked into hyperdrive. I suppose it takes a perverse kind of picky pop aesthete to enjoy the systematic fixing of radio hits, many of which desperately need it, but one needn’t know the originals to admire this album’s grace and energy. With catchy tunes and conventional song structures all but ensured by the source material, the big beat produces uplift that’s elegant enough to captivate. Displays of musical athleticism make for quite the show.
The masterpiece in this category is the same company’s Songs of Summer 2013, whose juicier bubblegum textures make the whole thing that much more ridiculous. This modest entry, if modesty is possible in this genre, delights in the way its percussive synthesizer punch renders several formerly irritating melodies palatable. That an album hardly meant for aesthetic contemplation turns out so pleasurable regardless is proof plenty that the intentional fallacy is evil.
35 Hits from the ‘70s & ‘80s: Unmixed Workout Music Ideal for Gym, Jogging, Running, Cycling, Cardio and Fitness (Power Music)
Different varieties of workout mix exist. For every take on contemporary chart hits there’s a genre-specific collection, or a tribute to the dance music of a particular city, or a period piece — that is, if “the ‘70s and ‘80s” counts as a period. This clumsy compilation by my beloved Power Music Workout illustrates the dangers of casting too wide a stylistic net and remixing everything within said net the same.
Modern Top 40 remix albums encompass a moderately wide range of styles while presenting a unified snapshot of pop radio at a particular time. But two decades is simply too long a span — I’d relish a summer ‘84 workout mix, say — and nothing about this sequence suggests commonalities between 0 (to choose the first three songs) Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” and King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” beyond functioning as tokens of some conflated, unanalyzable, irretrievable past. Theoretically I’d enjoy the desecration of sacred cows, as when “Hallelujah” becomes a dance banger complete with Europop hook, but the song selection irritates not so much for projecting reverential nostalgia but rather for its treatment of the past as a monolith and its consequent failure to engage. Moreover, the album fizzles for mechanical reasons — remix techniques designed for digital sound do horrific damage to tracks from an age of predigital recording technology. The propulsion of modern dance music inflects many if not all contemporary chart hits and makes them excellent candidates for workout remixing. Hearing the relaxed shufflebeat in Steve Miller’s “The Joker” struggle to keep up with the bouncy caffeinated drum machine, while intellectually amusing, is actively unpleasant to listen to. Hearing several other incompatible styles of beat shudder at similar rhythmic simplifications and the imposition of aggressively eager dance synthesizers is to witness the most painful sort of historical anachronism.
Listen up, kids: this isn’t how you sequence a playlist. At the very least don’t stick “Purple Rain,” a song that works only in climactic position, in the middle between Orleans’s “Still the One” and Candi Stanton’s “Young Hearts Run Free”.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.