Songs of the Summer Mixtape Draft, Part 2

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Read Part 1

Dan

We’re halfway through our summer songs fantasy draft, and I have to say my thoughts on my roster are a mixture of delight and disappointment. Curiously, it seems our early picks were the least competitive, most strident with each other: You certainly could have waited several rounds to nab “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” and, based on your responses, I sprung too early for my first two selections, “Waterfalls” and “Crazy in Love.” It got more tense from there: From pick #5 onward, it seems we continually opened our exchanges with some variation of “Wow!” or “Darn!” as we sniped each other’s picks. I’m very much pleased with some of the value I landed, but bummed that I let a few favorites fall into your nefarious clutches. Most of the heavy hitters are off the table, and we’re each going to be stuck with a few stinkers with our later picks. But I also think there are enough lingering sleepers to keep things interesting.

As we plunge into the second half, I wonder: What are your thoughts on the draft so far?

I seriously considered “Promiscuous” at #12, but ended up going with “Hot in Herre.” I find “Promiscuous” a very striking song — its beat is the cream of the crop, perhaps the most scorching in the entire “songs of the summer” stable. But I find the song’s flow and rhymes and flow to be average at best. I just have trouble imagining myself rap along with it. Even the chorus is slightly off, in my mind. As much as Timbaland and co. absolutely demolish the beat and background hook, creating an encapsulation of summer fun, they make the chorus feel almost whiny. I recognize, though, that “Promiscuous” has a place on summer mixes. It’s a solid brain-off, bob-your-head listen that plays well in the heat.

My last pick of the first half went to “We Belong Together,” one of two Mariah numbers. Why not finish the sweep?

With the #16 pick, Dan selects “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey (1990).

Given your effusive praise of Ms. Carey in our last exchange, I’m aware you might be egging me on to make this pick, but I’m pleased with it. This is my first song that I’d consider a romantic ballad (though “Waterfalls” has the tempo, and I could see “We Belong Together” played as a slow song at a homecoming dance). Given that I waited half the draft and still ended up with one of my two favorite romantic ballads among the bunch, a song that’s clearly a product of immense talent, I’d say I got great value at #16, and all that’s before you even consider the Carey synergy my roster has going on.

So does your Mariahphilia extend to her first-ever hit, produced when you were a toddler?

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Colton

Unreal! This is the absolute last song that I thought you would take right now. Complete, utter disaster for me. Are you mad, man? After all of your care in choosing singable, high-energy, summery songs, I thought the automatic strike against variety would make you avoid repeat artists like the plague. A double dash of Jay-Z? Sure, that’s no big deal. But both Mariah Carey songs? And right in a row?

In case you can’t tell, I’m a little flustered. I needed “Vision of Love.” Nothing else here compares. My plan from the outset included: Dan will pick “We Belong Together,” and I will suck it up because “Vision of Love” is a brilliant track that, while not on par with the former, fills the same slot. Now you’ve ruined that. I’ve got nothing. All I can hope is that you do indeed take the hit on the variety score that I thought would deter you in the first place.

Whew. Deep breaths.

With that as background, how is the draft going? There’s still a risk in saying too much, since my evaluation of our playlists so far is colored by my expectations and hopes for the remainder of the draft. I think the bread and butter of our mixtapes is going to be Top 40 pop (duh), and we’ve each taken a trio of pure representatives from that category. These are our singles. The supporting cast of “album tracks” is looking strong on both sides so far, but I think, if I were a judge, the overall quality of our mixtapes will hinge on the ability of the deep cuts (read: last few picks) to keep the momentum going and not kill the party. In other words, it’s anyone’s game.

At this moment, though, what can I do? I feel a little tilted after your last selection, and I’m drawn toward two or three different picks that all feel like desperation. But can I afford to lose them?

I think I’ll have to do the most desperate thing of all: trust the process. I came in with a value-centric plan with ratings based on what songs I actually like listening to, and even if it means shooting myself in the hull, I’ll go down with this ship. Because right now, the value-o-meter is pointing directly at this middling bit of alt rock:

With the #17 pick, Colton selects “Bent” by Matchbox Twenty (2000).

In what universe was “Bent” the top song of its summer when, a year earlier, “Smooth” (released in the second week of the season!) didn’t even crack the top ten? I think the radio must have gone insane in 2000. Look at the runners-up in the Billboard article: Nine Days? Vertical Horizon? Creed?

Don’t get me wrong, I remember all those songs’ time in the sun, but… America must have had the worst kind of jones for alt. We were scraping the bottom of the barrel there. The summer of 2000 saw Horrorscope drop, along with some follow-up singles off Third Eye Blind’s Blue. Why was Scott Stapp even on the radio?

Matchbox Twenty was, at least, one of the kings of the genre. Much like my Madonna pick, this song doesn’t represent their best, but they basically never wrote a single bad song. “Bent” has an engaging arrangement that will feed a certain musical appetite we all develop in the mid-summer. It’s a song as hard as it is soft, and I think I can put it to good use when it comes time to sequence our tracks.

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Dan

My sentiments toward “Bent” match yours almost entirely. Decent song… totally baffling “song of the summer.” It’s not a signature song for the band, no more radio friendly than the majority of their work or the corresponding alt-rock that populated the charts. Why “Bent”? Your guess is as good as mine.

As for the repeat Mariah selection and its potential corresponding hit on my variety score… “wildcard, bitches!”

You cite your own process, but I must admit: Each pick feels like a crossroads, and I’m constantly adjusting my pick selection procedure. Sometimes, I’m using my brain to decide, staring at the five categories and estimating which track will earn me the most upticks. Other times, I’m using my heart to decide, picking the song I most admire or most love. And each time, I’m considering the narrative it creates. I wanted a signature ballad, so I went with “Vision of Love,” scores be damned.

This next pick is the opposite: It’s a song that I can (and do) make fun of as inane, but I think the boost it gives me in singalongability and energy more than make up for the hit I just took in variety.

With the #18 pick, Dan selects “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black-Eyed Peas (2009).

Let me get the teasing out of the way:

  • I’ve always understood “gotta” to be short for “got to,” which, in turn, is bastardization of “have to.” So the song is correctly titled “I Have To Feeling.”
  • I’ve often imagined the background music of Hell to be the Peas chanting “let’s do it… and do it… and do it… and do it…” on loop.
  • Will.i.am was definitely watching Sesame Street when he wrote these lyrics, especially the verse where he says the days of the week.

All of that said, “I Gotta Feeling” goes down like honey. It’s gentle and tasty bit of radio pop, giving you a little jolt with each hook. It’s possibly the easiest pop song of all time to sing along with (partially for some of the reasons I just made fun of it). And, even if it’s no paragon of artistry or talent, I must admit that I rarely find myself changing the station when it comes on the radio, even if I don’t feel great about it later. It’s high-fructose corn syrup in audio form.

Let’s also not forget just how popular this song is: Billboard rates it the #6 biggest hit in the magazine’s history, through summer 2013. That I could land a four-quadrant radio staple with the 18th pick seems a smart choice to me.

I’m hoping that you’ll hold off on picking the few remaining songs I genuinely like so I don’t regret this choice.

sos2009

Colton

Beggars can’t be too choosy. “I Gotta Feeling” is about as good as it gets right now. If you look at it from the right angle, in the right light, it’s a hell of a hit. Together with “Boom Boom Pow,” it dominated what I propose we label The Stupidest Summer of All Time for Music (working title), with each single moving over five million units. Like, on average, The Black Eyed Peas sold a copy of either The E.N.D. or one of its singles for every 15 living Americans at the time. And, I’ll just come out and say it, it’s all garbage.

I’d rather listen to The Dutchess than The E.N.D., but the public dissents. And in the summer, the public rules.

Here’s where my strategy gives me some relief, though. I had “I Gotta Feeling” paired with another hit that has clear upside and clear downside. I’m happy about this one—given the choice, I would’ve passed you The Black Eyed Peas, but it’s a fine distinction of personal taste or risk aversion.

With the #19 pick, Colton selects “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell, T.I.) (2013).

Let the mob come after me: I am all for this song. Horribly misogynist? Yeah, that’s what I hear. Frankly, lyrics rarely factor into how much I like a song. Marvin Gaye ripoff? If you say so. I’d never heard “Got to Give It Up” until last year. Plus, most art is built on plagiarism, consciously or sub-, and I’m totally cool with that. “Blurred Lines” went 6x Platinum in 2013 and “Got to Give It Up” did not, which I feel kind of validates the former’s existence.

Wherever it came from, this is a sick song. It’s a groove I could listen to all day, with an indulgent mix of falsetto and well-placed baritone for sexy effect. Will the judges turn up their noses? That’s the only risk here. The record itself is a sure thing.

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Dan

Though not an all-time favorite of mine, I think “Blurred Lines” is overhated. The lyrics are vaguely predatory, but not all that much worse than plenty of other pop music. I’m even less bothered by the plagiarism claims… as you note, to create is to steal, especially in an art form as dependent on structure and convention as radio pop. Thicke’s public transformation from provocative underdog to drug-addicted, cheating, divorced, pilfering pariah was far too abrupt. If I were making a mixtape for which I was the only judge, I’d have picked up “Blurred Lines” a few rounds ago.

We’re about to hit the two-thirds point, and there is at least one song on the board that demonstrates genuine artistry and charm. Even if it’s not the most summery song — and even if it overlaps with some of the current strength of my roster — I feel compelled to take the best available song, a signature late-’90s R&B single, one of the biggest duets in pop music history.

With the #20 pick, Dan selects “The Boy is Mine” by Brandy and Monica (1998).

To quote Grantland writer Rembert Browne, “the great thing about this song is that it has no flaws.”

“The Boy Is Mine” features an emotive production that’s free of the type of excesses that often date songs. I could imagine hearing this song on the radio in 2015. Brandy and Monica give smooth, soulful performances. After taking the sugary hit “I Gotta Feeling” with my last pick, I’m happy to land this palate cleanser.

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Colton

In doing research for this draft, I learned that “The Boy Is Mine” was, for many, a milestone. For me, it wasn’t. Probably I had heard the song before, but I didn’t know it by name and it didn’t sound familiar. I thought perhaps I was ignorant of that genre when I was that age, but Grammy nominees in surrounding years include “I Believe I Can Fly,” “No Scrubs,” “No Diggity,” “Killing Me Softly,” “Say My Name”… all tunes that I could sing on command.

Whatever the reason, it’s not important now, as I agree that you chose the best track available by any reasonable measure of music. (Hey, that’s a pun!) For my part, I’m happy to continue ceding the initiative as I claim another pale reflection of your selection. This might happen one or two more times before, I trust, you will slip up and go for a real stinker.

With the #21 pick, Colton selects “Confessions Part II” by Usher (2004).

Listening to this song, it’s hard to accept Usher’s apology. Coming clean doesn’t wipe the past away. But when you watch the video, and you see his baby face twisted with remorse, and his perfect abs… who can resist that man?

This isn’t the second ballad that I need, but it’s almost certainly going to play that role. Usher is smooth. Maybe the smoothest. It almost doesn’t matter what he’s singing about: you know he loves you, you know he wants you, and you want to hear more.

P.S. I want you to know, that Grantland piece earned an exasperated “pffffft” from me. This isn’t the venue to argue over it, I just didn’t want to let it go by without comment.

sos2004

Dan

I’ve always thought “Confessions Part II” to be a strange song to be a massive hit. It’s not much of a pop number, as the tune is built around its groove and soulful crooning, not a catchy hook or melody. Compare it to many of Usher’s other biggest hits, and it feels a bit inert, though certainly expressive. Personally, I’m not very interested listening to it on a road trip except as a moment to catch your breath. It’s a nice song, but not a banger. (On the other hand, his Lil Jon/Luda collab, “Yeah!”, which is from the same album and hit #1 earler in ’04, would have been one of my first few picks if it had been in the draft.)

As the pool of songs grows thinner and thinner, I have to start thinking about minimizing damage. The number of remaining selections I’d describe as “fun” tracks, regardless of their quality, are growing few. I feel myself drawn to a song that I know is mediocre, even annoying, but the track that feels most at home on a mixtape.

With the #22 pick, Dan selects “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea (feat. Charli XCX) (2014).

As someone whose job requires him to drive a lot during the summer — and therefore listen to a lot of radio — I thought that 2014 felt like the worst summer for radio pop in recent memory as it happened.

Looking at Billboard’s list of the ten biggest songs of the summer, I see it’s not much worse than 2013… except at the top of the list. The summer’s two biggest hits, “Fancy” and the truly awful “Rude” by MAGIC!, are duds, but there were actually a few nice songs to receive airplay: Martin-Shellback number “Problem,” John Legend’s beautiful “All of Me,” and the monumental “Turn Down for What.”

“Fancy” lacks grace or charm, and Charli XCX’s in-your-face shout-along approach to the chorus does nothing to help. Iggy has a reputation as an awful rapper, but I find her rhyming to be a step up from, say, Nelly Furtado and Timbaland in “Promiscuous.” The chorus is simple and catchy to sing along with, its boasts fun to shout out an open window, even if your road trip is not “from L.A. to Tokyo.”

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Colton

I covered “Fancy” and Iggy Azalea in general here, and I’ll stand by my impression: she has potential, but this track is typical of her debut LP in suffering from weak production and a weak guest spot. We are crossing an awful threshold, though. I’m glad that I won’t have to include “Fancy” on my mixtape right up until I look at what’s left in its wake.

With the #23 pick, Colton selects “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio (1996).

Our parents had the Electric Slide. We got the Macarena. These horrific ensemble rituals have a unitive purpose in our culture, allowing us all to act silly within clearly specified patterns that ensure we are being laughed with and not at. This entry by “the ones from the river” wasn’t even one of the worst, truth be told. If I could dance the Macarena at every friend’s wedding instead of the Cha Cha Slide, well, I might actually stay on the floor instead of ghosting.

With the Bayside Boys’ English verses, this song really can carry itself for a good two-and-a-half minutes. I’d be happy to pick just that cut! The problem is that, after feigning as if to end, it ramps back up for a needless minute of extended dance partying.

From the fun facts department, I’d like to inform third-grade Colton and all his friends that Macarena is not, in fact, the Spanish word for “stripper.” It’s just a common name for girls near Los Del Rio’s hometown of Seville. Unfortunately for Señor Vitorino, in this case, the titular girl just happens to find monogamy a little too constricting.

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Dan

Truthfully, I had “Macarena” last on my initial ranking of the thirty tracks. I know it’s not the worst of the worst — heck, it’s downright listenable for half its length! — but the idea of a novelty dance song playing on the road trip would actually make me feel cooped up rather than liberated.

So I’ve been sitting on this pick since you revealed in the second round that you have no interest in the track, and we’re deep enough into the dregs that I’m beginning to get worried that you’re going to change your mind.

With the #24 pick, Dan selects “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry (2008).

My case in favor of Matt Thiessen’s ex-girlfriend’s breakout hit:

I’m not here to defend the lyrics of “I Kissed a Girl” as anything productive or worthwhile. The criticisms are valid: The song appropriates a hot button issue as something a trashy frat boy fantasy, revealing neither emotion nor complexity of thought for a subject matter that is ripe for compelling writing.

But the lyrics are provocative and lusty, commanding each listener’s ear. The music accents that provocation in every way: Perry’s husky voice has rarely been as attention-grabbing, and the kinetic production builds tension to the chorus in a way that reminds me of “…Baby One More Time.”

It’s a damn fun song, and if you don’t enjoy it, I’m sorry for you loss. I couldn’t be more pleased with the value I’m getting at #24.

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Colton

I think I owe a more specific commentary on Perry’s breakout single than I gave before, but I’ll try to keep it concise.

The conflict between your admissions and your defense highlight the song’s affront to sane justice. Immense promotional backing aside, lyrical content is, I’m convinced, the primary musical reason for the sales of “I Kissed a Girl.” Everyone was titillated by a big-breasted young woman showcasing the intriguing, heartbeat-racing side of impulsive lesbian lust. But the words themselves are crummy! The first verse makes it sound like Perry only slipped into this by circumstance, while “You’re my experimental game” suggests a completely different scene in which she confidently holds the reins, perhaps literally.

Lacking the actual vocal talent of other pop altos like Lady Gaga or even KT Tunstall, Perry often resorts to quasi-pitchless yelling while the sound engineers try to cover it up with digital processing and echoey multitracking in the chorus and bridge, all the while playing up that “huskiness” by keeping the guitars fuzzy and down in her octave, a crutch that was largely abandoned on Teenage Dream.

So I’ll take that loss. And I’ll add, though I don’t mean to get personal and I think it’d come across better in person, that it’s strange to me how “I Kissed a Girl” reminds you of “…Baby One More Time” in its build to the chorus when the latter (which is both iconic and exceptional) actually has a prechorus by which it accomplishes its build, and the former does not.

Glad we got that out of the way!

With the #25 pick, Colton selects “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy (feat. Faith Evans, 112) (1997).

Prior to my last pick, there were three tracks available likely to have been part of our generation’s life. My goal was to nab the two that weren’t “I Kissed a Girl,” and I guess that was actually a guarantee, since you had “Macarena” ranked dead last. This seemed the safer sequence to me, as you’re likely to be ballad-averse at this point.

Soft as it is, “I’ll Be Missing You” isn’t especially slow in terms of tempo, so I think it’ll work out okay. This is officially the last pick I don’t feel bad about forcing our judges to listen to. And by that token, if you had dared to take this at #24 or to leave “I Kissed a Girl” to the very end, I would’ve begrudgingly rostered the Katy Perry double feature.

Oh dear. Dan, the bottom of the pile looks bleak. Where do we go from here?

sos1997

Dan

Your objective, fact-based critique of “I Kissed a Girl” shames my subjective “it’s provocative and fun” argument, so I’m happy to concede the point to you, though I’m still pleased to land it more than 80% into the draft. Thanks for giving me a different perspective on the song.

I considered “I’ll Be Missing You” as early as #18, and was totally primed to take it next. It’s a fairly pleasant store-brand knockoff of one of my favorite ballads in modern pop history. Alas.

One interesting tidbit: If this exercise had extended back two years, to 1983, we would’ve had both “I’ll Be Missing You” AND “Every Breath You Take” as eligible selections. That would have made for some interesting comparison shopping.

You are correct that scraping the last bit of grime off this barrel. One thought that ties the remaining five songs together: Each artist except Richard Marx has at least one trademark song that I enjoy. So, no matter what, I’m going to feel like I’m taking something second-tier.

With the #26 pick, Dan selects “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams (1991).

I like power ballads more than the average twentysomething. Slow-dance pop drowned in swelling guitars and keyboards has the potential to be very evocative and is the kind of schlock I can easily swallow. Unfortunately, there are no particularly good power ballads in this lot. Adams’ smash is probably the best of them in absolute, but… ugh, that six minute runtime.

So do I simply take the song that clocks in at the fewest ticks so my listeners have the shortest slog before they loop back to the good stuff? Or do I go for the music I consider marginally better? I decided to go with my gut and take the song available I can best stomach.

Adams’ “Heaven” is a far superior entry in the power ballad genre, its melody more competent and affecting. “I Do It for You” has some of that charm, swelling in the right places to bring out Adams’ emotive singing. But it has a 150-second coda that burdens the song and ends up on the wrong side of the divide between “romantic” and “desperate.”

Wait, I still have to pick two more songs after this? Seriously?

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Colton

Among these dregs, a power ballad was certainly the way to go. The two available were pretty close for me, so in a way I’m glad that you got to take your favorite.

With the #27 pick, Colton selects “Alone” by Heart (1987).

Would that this song were “Magic Man,” or—if life were a dream—the stellar “Barracuda.” No, neither. I do still like this song, it just has no place bridging the gap between “Call Me Maybe” and “Blurred Lines.” The deft transitions from spacious piano backing to full-on hard rock, in a harmonic ship captained by the stalwart Ann Wilson, make perfect sense in mid-July if they’re bouncing off the stands in a football stadium, but they lie some distance from the type of “summer-ness” we’ve each been cultivating for our mixtapes.

And now, sir, we are both surely screwed, but you doubly so. What will it be: Scylla, Charybdis, or UB40?

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Dan

(I should note that, after listening to the remaining tracks again, I’d like to revise my claim that “Macarena” is dead last on my list. Heck, I’d take “Macarena Christmas” over any of these three.)

I was torn about what to pick, until, by happenstance, I was listening to a colleague’s Spotify mix, and it included “Shout,” meaning the song has at least one admirer. And if at least one — surely that means it has others, right? Does anyone still fondly listen to either of the other options?

With the #28 pick, Dan selects “Shout” by Tears for Fears (1985).

Remember when, a few exchanges ago, I said that “The Boy is Mine” is “free of the type of excesses that often date songs”? “Shout” is the exact opposite, possessing a synthy production filled with echoing drum machines that most ears instantly detect as “80s music.”

Compositionally, it’s a fairly bland tune, with a plodding melody that’s almost undetectable with the overbearing background noise. Too bad “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “Mad World” weren’t on the table — I’d have gladly rostered the former, especially.

So, what clunker are you going to stick me with? (Regardless, be prepared for a hate-filled rant about UB40.)

sos1985

Colton

Ooo, goody! I look forward to your rant, because I have a feeling you’ve got more to say about UB40 than I ever could. Their #1 hit (really, 1993?) is the one song I knew I would never pick under any level of duress. While I’d heard the band’s name, I couldn’t have told you anything about them a month ago. So when I looked up this song on YouTube—this is a true story—I stopped after the first 30 seconds and tried a different search result, because the song sounded so outrageously bad that I was convinced I was listening to some troll’s home recording that he had posted under UB40’s name.

Once I accepted that it was, in fact, their platinum record, I listened to the whole song, and found that it never stopped being terrible. Agape, unable to understand why anyone invested in this calamity of a travesty of a cover, I moved on to 1994.

That means I’m picking the lesser of two evils!

With the #29 pick, Colton selects “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx (1989).

For it’s time, this is a perfectly sweet love song. Leaving questions of quality aside, I think it’s categorically similar to John Legend’s “All of Me” that you mentioned from 2013. The singer’s voice is a bit more manly, in a Patrick Swayze kind of way, and his piano skills are less pronounced, but his spirit is in the same place and the production is minimal. There isn’t a major swell toward the end, nor even a ripple.

Of course, a smooth-as-dead-water ballad isn’t what you want on a summer mixtape. I don’t know which is more of a show-stopper between this and the super extra extended new wave single you picked (which came complete with needless guitar solos). I look favorably on Tears for Fears, and I’ve even listened to “Shout” on purpose from time to time, but it’s not what I’d call a great song.

We’ve sifted through all the garbage, man! My list is complete, and I leave to you the worst of the best of the last 30 summers. I’ll hold off broader thoughts and commentary for the moment; you can take your leavings, then maybe we can move into sequencing?

sos1989

Dan

Yeah, “Right Here Waiting” isn’t offensively bad so much as it is intensely dull. Marx does his best with the kind-spirited tune. Smooth ballads will always be a radio mainstay, but I hope that “All of Me” doesn’t sound so saltine bland twenty-five years from now.

I’m a bit surprised that you’d never heard of UB40 before this exercise. They made a lucrative career out of sloppy reggae covers. Their “Red Red Wine” still gets frequently airplay. It’s actually a nice tune: The gentle production brings out sad-sack vocal harmonies that pair well with lyrics of a moping alcoholic. (Just be sure to avoid the extended album cut which includes a truly horrendous rap break.)

It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a lot better than their other #1 hit. Let’s get this over with.

With the #30 pick, Dan selects “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You” by UB40 (1993).
 
In context, this might be the worst song I’ve heard in my entire life.

For starters, the original “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is one of rock’s most iconic ballads, a true landmark. It’s a perfect song that is just as simple and warm now as it was when RCA released it nearly sixty years ago. No surprise, then, that it’s something of a standard, covered by every schmuck who owns a six-string.

Still, UB40’s version sounds like a joke out of a bad sitcom. A British reggae band — with awful, white singers — releases an over-the-top cover of a beloved classic. Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised if there exists an episode of Full House with this premise, and everyone is afraid to tell Uncle Joey how bad his music is because they don’t want to ruin his dreams.

The problem is not that it’s a kooky, left-field cover, though. Heck, I love unorthodox covers; you know that I’ve been obsessed with Postmodern Jukebox. It’s that UB40’s is an aggressively bad weird cover.

You said that your ears instantly detected the badness, but let’s punish ourselves and take a closer listen. The song opens with a pitchless croon by lead singer Ali Campbell, processed into echoing nothingness. There’s a bass drop about twenty seconds in that sounds like someone shitting their pants. The verses are backed by a drum machine loop that’s so ugly and jagged that it sounds like a cartoonish self-parody.

Campbell’s singing deteriorates even further as the song enters the bridge. I can just imagine the people working on the production. “This sounds awful. Should we ask him to do another take?” “Nah, let’s just drown him out with some horns.”

All 219 seconds of this song are hot trash, but the nadir is probably the portion of the song that is — structurally, at least — its climax, the build to “some things are meant to be!” at the 2:00 mark. These horrifying ten seconds are the audio equivalent of projectile vomit.

Did you notice that that UB40’s version of the song is 30 seconds longer than Elvis’s despite the faster tempo? Not satisfied with their aural torture, UB40 tacks on a few extra reps of “…for I can’t help falling in love with you” to the end of the song. This forces the listener, Sisyphus, to roll the boulder up the hill a few more times. At least the mythical Sisyphus had the moment of serenity of watching his giant rock tumble down a slope, the kinetic energy a physical manifestation of his struggle. UB40’s song ends with a droning, interminable fade out, so there’s no catharsis to be found in this track, unless you count the ruptured eardrums you undoubtedly suffer by sitting through all three and a half minutes.

But you know what detail pisses me off the most? The fuckers couldn’t even get the song title right. Elvis published his song as “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” while UB40’s is officially “(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You.”

I’m actually almost glad I got stuck with the song. It makes for a good conversation piece, a sort of grotesque novelty that the passengers can make fun of together.

I suppose this brings us to the wrap-up portion of this project: Looking back on our picks, sequencing our mixtapes, and sending them out for judgment. So, I’m curious, do you have a prescribed philosophy for ordering the songs on your mixes, or do you follow your intuition?

sos1993

Colton

Well said! Congratulations, UB40. You are truly the worst of the worst of the best.

Now that all our cards are on the table, I can finally talk about my picks frankly and holistically at the same time instead of one or the other. I think each judge’s impression of our mixtapes will be formed largely by their digestive tract, so to speak: clear grading criteria or no, their overall experience will be a decisive factor, and it will largely be shaped by what they personally enjoy or care about. If I had to frame the battle we have here, I’d call your tracklist the “Top 40 Mixtape” and mine the “Eclectic Mixtape.”

Variety was a focus of mine from the first pick. I counted out the songs that I would call pop, R&B, rap, etc. (“ballad” was its own category) and tried to gauge how close in quality the top two songs in each category were. If I saw a large disparity, I prioritized it. Otherwise, I planned to take the runner-up shortly after you broke ground in that genre. I think I’ve alluded to this approach several times, and you weren’t wrong to characterize “Roll With It” as the Jimmy Graham of this draft.

Based on my pre-draft rankings, I accomplished my goal almost perfectly. It actually went better than I would’ve guessed even without knowing your strategy: of the 10 songs I most wanted, I pulled 7, and of the 10 songs I least wanted, I was only stuck with 3. The one stupendous failure was the hubris that let you snag both Mariah Carey tracks.

I really mean that. Looking at my final tracklist, I would happily trade any single song for either Mariah Carey song. That would be a guaranteed upgrade to my mixtape. That doesn’t mean it would’ve been right to pick “We Belong Together” #1 overall, but I am just kicking myself that I got caught off guard by your wildcard.

I think we each created some space for ourselves in this draft; that is, there was room for two strategies that competed for some tracks and divvied up others. That’s probably why we made it so far before the real fighting began. I’m happy as an otter to have “Roll With It,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “Bent,” since I don’t think anything on your side parallels them. And while I was also happy to dodge wastes of airtime like “I Gotta Feeling,” “Fancy,” and “I Kissed a Girl,” it’s obvious in context why you’d feel great about landing them.

So we come to sequencing. I really do have a pretty good idea of what kind of structure I want. Since we’re dealing with popular music, I want to model my mixtape’s order on the cookie-cutter major label pop album. I’ve kept my eyes open for many years, and the formula seems to be something like this:

  • Start off with a song whose beginning sounds great as the first thing you hear, and whose style matches what the rest of the album is going for as a whole.
  • Anchor your tracklist with your very best by putting the first single at Track 2.
  • Keep the hits coming to maintain interest, with another tune destined to be a radio single at either Track 3 or Track 4.
  • Space out your ballads. You typically have two for good pacing, and they should go around Track 4 or 5 and around Track 9 or 10.
  • If it were up to your producer, you’d go to market with exactly 11 songs. The first 10 should be 3:30 long, and the final track should be longer, maybe 4:30 or even 5 minutes.
  • Screw everything else. Nobody minds garbage in the back end album tracks. Putting your best foot forward means trailing with the ugly foot, the one with the bunion. After all, nobody hears these songs unless their money is already in your pocket.

Using these principles, I’ve tried to front-load the really good stuff, space out the slow stuff, and yet maintain the listener’s interest throughout by avoiding the kind of 3-losers-in-a-row stretch that could destroy their experience without a chance of recovery. Behold! My summer song mixtape!

“Strawberry Summer Salad”

  1. California Gurls – Katy Perry (2010)
  2. Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepsen (2012)
  3. Promiscuous – Nelly Furtado (feat. Timbaland) (2006)
  4. I Swear – All-4-One (1994)
  5. Let Me Blow Ya Mind – Eve (feat. Gwen Stefani) (2001)
  6. Party Rock Anthem – LMFAO (feat. Lauren Bennett, GoonRock) (2011)
  7. Roll With It – Steve Winwood (1988)
  8. Papa Don’t Preach – Madonna (1986)
  9. Alone – Heart (1987)
  10. I’ll Be Missing You – Puff Daddy (feat. Faith Evans, 112) (1997)
  11. Confessions Part II – Usher (2004)
  12. Bent – Matchbox Twenty (2000)
  13. Right Here Waiting – Richard Marx (1989)
  14. Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix) – Los Del Rio (1996)
  15. Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell, T.I.) (2013)

C’est fait. You know, writing all those out, I realized that you basically got all the best from our formative years, the 1990’s and 2000’s. If I were the trash-talking sort, I might use this as evidence that you were more drawn to songs you’ve very familiar with than to songs of outright good quality. But that’s not my style. I got nearly every song from the 1980’s and 2010’s, only missing the very earliest and very most recent tracks available, which were both pretty terrible.

Can variety triumph over a more direct, earworm-centric method? Do you think I even stand a chance? How’s it looking on your end, Dan?

sos-strawberry

Dan

I see two valid approaches to arranging these mix tapes: Wow ’em, or sustain ’em. You’ve opted for the “wow ’em” approach: I agree the first of your mix is a lot better than your second half. What worries me about your tape are tracks 9 to 13: You’ve got a stretch of five tracks without any song I’d consider a sturdy piece of singalong or dance-along pop.

While I will certainly tip my hat to your variety and value-based picking, I’m overall pleased with my narrative-based picking. It’s a subtle difference; rather than accumulate compelling assets, I wanted to craft a roster where every song was important, every track with a role to play. Of course, that gets difficult when you’re forced to pick some drivel. I was also determined to keep the sound smooth and pleasant: I wanted my mix to be an ice-cold lager, not a Stone Pale Ale 2.0.

Onto sequencing: I’ve decided to see if I can straddle the middle ground, front-loading my mix-tape without letting the energy lag for more than a track or two. I figure my roster of mix radio staples should allow me to make sure that every other song is either excellent or, at least, an upbeat jolt. I’ve more-or-less managed this, I think:

“In the Fast Lane”

  1. Crazy in Love – Beyonce (feat. Jay-Z) (2003)
  2. We Belong Together – Mariah Carey (2005)
  3. Baby Got Back – Sir Mix-A-Lot (1992)
  4. Genie in a Bottle – Christina Aguilera (1999)
  5. Umbrella – Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z) (2007)
  6. Shout – Tears for Fears (1985)
  7. Waterfalls – TLC (1995)
  8. Hot in Herre – Nelly (2002)
  9. Vision of Love – Mariah Carey (1990)
  10. Fancy – Iggy Azalea (feat. Charli XCX) (2014)
  11. I Kissed a Girl – Katy Perry (2008)
  12. (Everything I Do) I Do It For You – Bryan Adams (1991)
  13. I Gotta Feeling – The Black Eyed Peas (2009)
  14. (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You – UB40 (1993)
  15. The Boy Is Mine – Brandy, Monica (1998)

(Rejected titles include: “Carey On My Wayward Son,” “Jason Waterfall’s Summer Mix,” “I Like Crew Cuts and I Cannot Lie,” “Good Gracious, Shotgun Spacious,” “Peein’ in a Bottle,” “I Missed a Turn (And I Liked It),” “The Scent is Pine,” “Beers for Beers,” and “(I Can’t Help) Listening to This Song Because it Was the Last Available Track in the Fantasy Draft”)

I’m overall pretty pleased with my lineup. I’m especially thrilled with the value and damage mitigation I accomplished in the back end of the draft. You might mock Perry and the Peas for their inanity and absent artistry, deriding my choices as the product of overfamiliarity. But it was also somewhat calculated: If something is upbeat and comfortable to me, I’d guess it’s likely to be so for judges, too.

The start of the draft was a little bit rockier as I gained my bearings. The three biggest misses in my mind are waiting a turn too long to take “Call Me Maybe,” “I Swear,” and “Papa Don’t Preach.” I overcame the loss of “I Swear” the best, landing another crown jewel ballad with “Vision of Love.” But I couldn’t fill the holes left by Carly Rae Jepsen’s pleasant bubblegum and the lone ’80s singalong. Bummer.

So we’ve each made our case. I guess it lies in the hands of our judges. Any closing thoughts before we hand the mic over to our esteemed arbiters?

fastlane

Colton

There’s a chance that, for some judges, sequencing matters very little, and having the right set of songs is enough to claim victory. But I hope that’s not the case, because on top of cleverly taking different angles in the draft, I think we’ve really distinguished our submissions by how the tracks are ordered as well.

If I can make a bold claim just based on my gut interpretation, I think that your sequencing theory works better for a listener with a long memory and mine works better for a short memory.

Here’s what I mean:

Truly, Tracks 9–13 are a slump on my tape in terms of energetic pop, but I don’t think the songs there are unenjoyable. If the listener is willing to ride the wave I crafted and come to each song in the mood and context established by just the previous song, then I think that section actually plays out rather well in terms of musical quality and listenability, even if it’s altogether less “summery.” Compare that to the top of your batting order. If you put on some blinders and just look at pairs of songs, I find the segues fairly awkward, so that each song fails to single-handedly set the listener up for the next one.

But if the listener is keeping the whole mixtape in mind as they go, then thoughts start to creep in during my back half like, “How long has it been since I heard something from the last decade?” Your front half, on the other hand, is a healthy mix of styles if you count all the songs together without worrying so much about their order.

That’s my impression, which I think frames your list very differently from your intent, but without being paradoxical. If you want to avoid two slow songs in a row, then what you’re most worried about is what the song two tracks ago sounded like. I made an effort to focus on just the immediately previous track.

Of course, we’re both discussing the Platonic form of a mixtape that we sought to approximate with extremely non-ideal building blocks. The judges won’t have the benefit of our theorycrafted explanations, only the great highs and terrible lows of the actual songs we’ve assembled.

So let’s get to it! There’s nothing interesting left for us to say, but the judges’ opinions should prove enlightening.

carradio

Draft Results, Picks #16-32

  • 16. Dan – “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey (1990)
  • 17. Colton – “Bent” by Matchbox 20 (2000)
  • 18. Dan – “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black-Eyed Peas (2009)
  • 19. Colton – “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell, T.I.) (2013)
  • 20. Dan – “The Boy is Mine” by Brandy and Monica (1998)
  • 21. Colton – “Confessions Part II” by Usher (2004)
  • 22. Dan – “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea (feat. Charli XCX) (2014)
  • 23. Colton – “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio (1996)
  • 24. Dan – “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry (2008)
  • 25. Colton – “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy (feat. Faith Evans, 112) (1997)
  • 26. Dan – “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams (1991)
  • 27. Colton – “Alone” by Hear (1987)
  • 28. Dan – “Shout” by Tears for Fears (1985)
  • 29. Colton – “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx (1989)
  • 30. Dan – “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You” by UB40 (1993)

Read Part 3! The judges pick a winner!

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

Colton O.

Colton O.

Colton drinks straight out of coconuts and writes about music for Earn This. He joined the site in 2009.

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