Pop is so much more than a genre of music. It’s a measure of the times and, whether we like it or not, it’s the soundtrack of our lives. Pop music, arguably more than anything else, reflects the thoughts, tastes and realities of our time. Pop life is about embracing this music, good and bad, and discovering what it means to be alive right now.
January is usually a pretty dark month for music. The flood of albums released in time for Christmas tends to result in a drought the following month, and this year is no different: the albums topping the charts this month include the sterile Christian rock of Chris Tomlin and the dreadful masked rap-rock group Hollywood Undead’s latest album.
However, the second week in January proved to be a somewhat unexpected oasis, with three legendary artists — David Bowie, Destiny’s Child and Justin Timberlake — releasing new singles, previewing three of the most highly-anticipated albums of the year.
Although comeback songs were expected from Destiny’s Child and Timberlake, the string of throwbacks started with a surprise release by Bowie on Jan. 8. The single “Where Are We Now” comes off of his new album “The Next Day,” which was kept totally secret until Jan. 8. The song isn’t the kind of decadent catchy single for which Bowie is best known but instead a melancholy dreamscape on top of which Bowie reminisces about Berlin, the location of his greatest period of creative achievement.
“Where Are We Now” features Bowie at his most vulnerable, a “man lost in time,” yearning for the magic of a lost time. In typical Bowie fashion, however, the song ends on a hopeful note, with Bowie ending with “As long as there’s me / as long as there’s you,” hinting at the potential to regain whatever’s lost.
Although the song returns to Berlin in subject matter, it unfortunately doesn’t include the intricate soundscapes that characterized Bowie’s time in Berlin in the 70s, featuring instead a slow, ambient, simple quilt of synth, strings, guitar and plotting drums. The music fits the introspective and dream-like qualities of the lyrics, but admittedly doesn’t have the same excitement of Bowie’s classic Berlin singles like “Heroes” or “Sound and Vision.”
Bowie’s surprise release did nothing, however, to overshadow the much more hyped and anticipated new tracks released later in the week. Destiny’s Child struck first, releasing “Nuclear” on the Jan. 11, the first new song the group has released since 2005. Understandably, expectations for this single were very high. Unfortunately, the single didn’t live up to the expectations.
The song is much more restrained than the group’s past hits; what used to be a collision of three extremely powerful voices is in “Nuclear” more of a traditional harmony. The harmonies are beautiful, but they don’t have the element of power that characterized so many of Destiny’s Child’s best hits.
Part of the blame for the song’s lackluster feel rests on producer Pharrell Williams, whose busy beat didn’t leave enough room for Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle to shine and made the song very difficult to dance to.
Dancers disappointed by “Nuclear” got some relief on Jan. 14 when Timberlake released “Suit and Tie,” the lead single off his first album since his 2006 masterpiece “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” Although firmly below the very high bar set by “FutureSex,” “Suit and Tie” does above all else show that JT still has the voice that made him famous. His smooth falsetto throughout “Suit and Tie” borrows heavily from the Robin Thicke school of seduction, but doesn’t leave room for the kind of pop inventiveness that made “FutureSex” so good.
Instead, “Suit and Tie” sounds like a more straightforward R&B song, backed by a classic if somewhat restrained Timbaland beat. Jay-Z’s verse breathes life into the song by acting as a counter to JT’s “everything is perfect” seduction, offering a glimpse behind the high-society facade with lines like “Years of distress, tears on the dress / Try to hide her face with some makeup sex.”
Although “Suit and Tie” will likely not end up in the pantheon of great JT hits, it shows that he still has the raw talent to make his upcoming release “The 20/20 Experience” one of 2013’s best albums.