After many long and glorious years at the top, 2001 marked the death rattle of the rock genre’s pop-chart relevance — I considered calling it the “swan song,” but that would imply it had some musical value. Let’s just say there’s a reason U2 were the lone rock-n-rollers on the “best” list. Say what you like about them, at least they can remember when the genre’s radio-friendly subset was at least kind of relevant. This isn’t to diminish the many bands doing great work at the time, but this isn’t work that Billboard was willing to recognize. You won’t see much from Wilco, or the White Stripes, or the Strokes on the chart, but you will see plenty of industrial sludge that somehow manages to sound both overpolished and turdlike at the same time. Honestly, though, while this music never rises above mediocrity, it only rarely sinks below it either. Take Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment” for instance. It somehow managed to become the best-selling song of the entire year without having one single thing about it worth noting. It just sounds like what would happen if you asked a computer simulator to make up a 2001 rock song, which must have been the source of its success: anyone hearing it on the radio probably just assumed it was some other song they already liked. 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” is the standard pick for the genre’s nadir, but honestly, even after looping it 10+ times, I don’t get it. It’s not good by any means, but I had no trouble finding another five songs that were much, much worse. I’ll say this much though: I’m personally offended that Brad Arnold thinks I’d ever call him “Superman,” crazy or not. And while the title suggests some grand, unifying metaphor, it’s only appearance in the lyrics is Arnold casually dropping it in at the end of chorus. “Oh yeah, almost forgot. Kryptonite.” Could this song be the origin of the lazy “hashtag rap” that would dominate the radio five-ten years later? Crap, maybe it is that bad. Speaking of, Crazy Town’s rap-metal proved to be the very worst of both worlds, ruining a liquid John Frusciante sample with lyrics ranging from douchey and instantly dated (“Girl you got me sprung/with your tongue ring”) to inexplicably off-tone (“Whatever tickles your fancy…”). Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” is mostly inoffensive, but lyrics like “Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried chicken…Can you imagine no first dance, freeze-dried romance?” suggest the inexplicable lyrical nonsense that would lead them to craft such immortal lines as “I’m just a shy guy/Looking for a two-ply.hefty bag to hold/My-y-y-y-y love” the following decade.
Elsewhere in the music world, the Isley Brothers showed just how far the mighty can fall with “Contagious,” an alternate-universe version of what would have happened if R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet had still been over the top enough to be ridiculous, but not enough to be any fun. Faith Hill provided two entirely different flavors of terrible with the sappy stings-and-piano ballad “There You’ll Be” and awkwardly jamming hip hop and techno elements into “The Way You Love Me.” Maybe she feared her voice couldn’t be annoying enough on its own and needed a vocoder to reach its full potential. 3LW and Willa Ford abuse the instrument at least as badly on “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right)” and “I Wanna Be Bad,” which were apparently sung through the “talking underwater” filter from Pinocchio. You wanna be bad? Well, congratulations! As we saw on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” rappers could not only take slang from black urban communities to international use, they could make up their own and still get people singing along like they knew what it meant. Nelly does the same on “E.I.,” which stands for “eat it,” “it” being his dick and “eat” hopefully being meant figuratively. Or, to use Lyrics Genius’s deadpan explanation, it “means that you are about to receive oral sex.” Now, tell me. Now that you know all that, does that make Nelly phonetically burping the acronym out at the beginning of the track any less ridiculous? Beyonce was (unfortunately) more successful popularizing new words on Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious,” but at least the even more ridiculous lyric “vibealicious” never seemed to catch on. I’ll direct you to Nathan Rabin’s deeply unflattering picture of Beyonce’s inspiration for “Survivor” in this column’s forebear “THEN! That’s What They Called Music.” But there is one observation worth repeating: Beyonce promises her former bandmates not to “diss you on the radio (I’m better than that!)” while, you know, doing exactly that. Still, if you want a Beyonce song, it’s best to stick with the original. P!nk’s embarrassing empowerment anthem “Most Girls” delivers its message through cringy cultural appropriation (“Most girls want a man with the bling bling/Got my own thing, got the ching ching”) and lets us know she’s both a “shorty” and a “fly girl” who “Don’t wanna dance if he can’t be everything that I dream of,” which seems like a pretty reasonable standard.
Nathan Rabin describes Shaggy as a “a novelty bubblegum reggae artist who sounds like a cartoon frog” (a frog-voiced novelty singer? That’s just Crazy!) That made him an ideal fit for “It Wasn’t Me,” but when he tries out a sincere love song on “Angel,” he ends up being no less hilarious. The same goes for Ja Rule, who tries to be sensitive on “Put It On Me” but ends up with something like the Muppets’ Animal trying to croon. At least the track found him a compatible match, with Vita sounding just as incongruously pissed off as he does. Thug Daddy doesn’t do any better softening his image on “I’m a Thug,” with the cheery children’s choir sitting uneasily with lyrics like “Fuck the family of the victim/Witness that snitchin’ assholes.” But the year’s title for most inappropriate use of underage singers goes to the eleven-year-old Li’l Romeo on “My Baby,” where he has to fend off the advances of a grown-ass woman despite him constantly reminding her “I’m too young/I don’t need a girlfriend.” No means no, lady!
- Lonestar – I’m Already There
What else is there left to say about yet another bland, sappy ballad in this column? I don’t know, but I can say for starters that the opening combination of piano, guitar, and mosquito-pitched violin must have been developed in a lab specifically to get on my nerves. Frontman Richie McDonald’s no slouch either, with his trembling yelp and overdone Texas twang. The song’s yet another piece of puff pandering to country’s “family values” crowd, narrating a phone call from his family on the road as he lets them know “I’m the whisper in the wind/I’m your imaginary friend” whatever the heck that means. The orchestral accompaniment strains painfully to make these cliches sound DRAMATIC! And EPIC! Does the drummer bang on his kit like he’s trying to beat life into the song? Yup! Does the string section squeal out long, swooping notes that never seem to know when to quit? Yup! At some points, the instrumental’s so overstuffed and incoherent it sounds like the different players are fighting each other for a chance in the spotlight. It’s hard to put into words what separates songs like these from the ones that make up the “best” list, but when the spark of real feeling is there, you know it. When you hear a singer trying this darn hard to yank at your heartstrings…well, the lady doth prtest too much, methinks.
4. O-Town – All or Nothing
Okay, why lie, I may have bumped this one onto the top five just so I could use that album cover in the header. Could any image better sum up the year of Our Lord two-thousand and one any better? The Microsoft Word Art logo, those eye-scorchingly overstaurated colors, those four variations on Zoolander’s “blue steel” face, that smorgasbord of terrible hair, from frosted tips to half-grown-out whiteboy dreads…just drink it allll in. The band themselves are the same kind of stew of all the year’s worst trends. Not only were they a late entrant in the boy band wars…they were a boy band formed for a reality TV show. But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. They just sound like a reality TV producer’s idea of a boy band. After all, how else can you explain the stunning originality of lyrics ripped off from a song that was already over sixty years old and had been covered hundreds of times? Or such equally revelatory turns of phrase as “something somewhere’s got to give,” and “I feel it in my heart/But I don’t show it” and “I’ve had the rest of you, now I want the best of you.” Why, I haven’t heard that one since the last time I saw a car dealership commercial! Maybe they’ll tell me about their low, low prices next! With all these cliches, I have to wonder if this song was written or just copied down from one of those CD compilation commercials that plays little snippets of each song. Certainly, the line “Now it’s time for show and tell” sums up the maturity of the whole enterprise. As for delivery, “All or Nothing” has all the same try-hard faults we’ve come to expect — why, is that the same drumline as “I’m Already There” I hear? And does it come in after it quiets down before coming back with all the harmonies and strings for a Great Big Finish! You betcha!
- Creed – With Arms Wide Open
I devoted some (too much?) space at the beginning to the state of pop rock in 2001, but if you want to talk about the genre’s sad decline, you’ve gotta talk about Creed, and if you’ve gotta talk about Creed, you’ve gotta talk about this song. The sad thing is, there was no reason “With Arms Wide Open” had to suck as bad as it did. Welcoming a new child into the world’s still relatively virgin lyrical territory, and lyrics like “I hope he’s not like me/I hope he understands” and “Welcome to this place, I’ll show you everything” suggest the band could have made it work, but then they had to go and record it. Rabin described this school of singing as “hunger-dunger-dang,” and it’s pretty seriously unsuited to the inspirational furrow he decided to plow. When he growls it out “I’ll show you everrrythang! Oh yeahuh!” sounds more threatening than welcoming. Creed’s subgenre’s often been called “post-grunge,” but there’s a reason Kurt Cobain sung about kidnappers and not the joys of family, y’know? The backing’s really nothing to speak of: the bassline and guitar sound like what you’d take home from your first lesson, or a preset that comes included with GarageBand, even when it comes time to deliver a big, crowd-pleasing solo. As you’d expect for a grunge-inspired inspirational arena anthem, Creed can never decide whether to make “With Arms Wide Open” pretty or ugly, lurching from mellow guitar loops to belching bass feedback. Stapp’s slurring voice tips the scale pretty definitively to the “ugly” side, though. Shouldn’t it be spelled “With Arrums Wide Opun?”
2. Blake Shelton – Austin
Shelton collaborated with country legend Bobby Braddock to produce this song, a man with “He Stopped Loving Her Today” among other classics under his belt. If he was trying to recreate George Jones’ masterpiece, though, Shelton got lost somewhere in the gap between unrequited love and creepy obsession. “What kind of man would hang on that long/What kind of love that must be.” A really messed-up kind, that’s what! You have to wonder what this poor dude’s friends must have thought, hearing “PS/If this is Austin/I still love you” every time they got his answering machine. If we’re this deep into romantic cliches, he must have had at least one sassy gay and/or black friend who broke their eyes rolling them and sighing “oh honey…” every time they had to hear that. Yeah, that’s right, this guy put his hypothetical friend in the hospital. I hope it was worth it to have Austin finally call you back, you fictional bastard! Shelton’s delivery does nothing to elevate the lyrics, either. When Austin finally tells her ex “If you’re callin’ bout my heart/It’s still yo-urs,” he delivers that last word in a strangled, canine yelp that’s unintentionally the funniest moment on the whole chart.
1. Enrique Iglesias – Hero
This song made it to the top of the bottom because it fulfilled the only criterion that matters — every time it came up I winced and reached to turn it off, but I didn’t, for research! The sacrifices I make for you people…