My first two blurbs, coincidentally-or-not, are on a couple sleeper hits that I find fascinating for largely similar reasons — namely, they’re arguably the good results of our current VIRAL VIDEO HOT 100 2K13-INFINITUM Billboard era, and they don’t get talked about as much.
(Also possibly of note: I don’t know whether it’s statistically significant — maybe Dave can answer that — but “Cups” has a pretty remarkable gender gap in terms of scores. “Sail,” not so much.)
Anna Kendrick, “Cups” (my score: )
In-universe: A girl from a small town, as small-town girls do every afternoon, clicks to a Lulu and the Lampshades video, crinkles her voice into harmonies and grabs the nearest state fair souvenir; a month later, job-bound but suddenly piqued, she starts idly twiddling a cup, imagines flinging herself up a dusty road, hears her voice echo to twice its size, is momentarily free. Out of universe: The Carter Family records a subtly evocative standard; youth pastors clap out a 4/4 with cups, and lore meets lore; Reddit and self-marketing boost one girl and one song in a succession of girls and songs; Anna Kendrick watches it once being cast in a film that, like Glee and High School Musical before it, elevates the extracurricular habits of suburban girls; folklore and commerce canonize it all. As folk in 2013, these stories ring truer than “Civil War re-enactors with Dylan complexes, without the war.” As streaming coups for Billboard, they trounce “Norwegian weird-als cash in their favor from Stargate” and “Baauer becomes trap feudal lord” and definitely “Ark Music Factory stripling records a thing even Neetzan Zimmerman passed up”; as a song this is so pleasant, and so harmless in a year packed with the un-harmless, that if you dislike it your priorities might be hopelessly warped. Docked a point because adding uke and tinny synths reveals the industry’s laziest workings.
AWOLNATION, “Sail” (my score: )
Critics ignore radio rock more and more, but “Sail” could use the coverage; it’s so fascinating. It’s simultaneously grating as hell — the most offputting sound of any 2013(ish) song may well be Aaron Bruno’s InterruptingSAIL, like a chain-smoking error message — but cluttered with too many extraneous drum fills and creepy toy-piano bridges to keep grating and too many coos and drifting chords to be aggro. And it makes sense in context — Alex Clare’s context — and it’s been adopted as eagerly by reality TV, film trailers and ad syncs as Anna Kendrick. Weird! Being a sleeper hit, “Sail” has accumulated its rote covers, but they’re weird too. Macy Gray’s version is unexpectedly apt as a distaff counterpart: prettifying oboe, strings and sonar pings, a cod-DnB breakdown for some reason, then Macy’s voice scrunching like a seam in the wash. A “Sail” cover was also Dev’s first song in ages; her version is faithful but distant, pop coos and whispers with no there there, which unsettles in its own way. When fun. and Carly Rae and Gotye broke out of nowhere last year, the hope was that they’d begun an era of bizarre charting shit. Which, well, happened to excess; but that the delicate screech and post-grunge testosterone of a band on Red Bull’s label was a highlight might be the weirdest thing of all.