10. Somebody (feat. Drew Love)
“Beach House” was singled out (by critics and by the group themselves) as the most obvious Memories… Do Not Open-style throwback of the Sick Boy era, but “Somebody” is the only Chainsmokers song of 2018 that truly captures the dreary sameness that plagued the worst parts of the group’s debut. Actually, it’s even a bit worse; at least something like “Bloodstream” was fully committed to depicting its narrator’s drunken self-loathing in a vividly specific (if self-obsessed) way. “Somebody”, on the other hand, is overloaded with meaningless “being a rock star is hard” platitudes that have been clichéd since 1973. Yes, yes, you wanted to be famous because you thought it would be awesome and now you are famous and it is awesome, but the problem is that it’s a little too awesome and now you feel kind of guilty about how insanely awesome your life — it’s such a common story! Who among us can’t relate to a down-to-earth emotion like the exhaustion triggered by overexposure to expensive alcohol and fancy cars? The only nugget of a decent lyrical idea here (“I don’t really like anybody/So don’t tell me I’m like anybody”) clearly comes straight from the pen of co-writer Emily Warren, and everyone involved seems to know it’s the best part of the song because Taggart repeats it during every verse and then, when it comes time to sing a bridge, gives up and repeats it two more times. Well done, everybody. Really stellar work, just… just amazing.
9. Siren (feat. Aazar)
When I previously wrote about this song, I was gripped by a mania that caused me to refer to as “the best short story I’ve read all year” — a statement which, like basically all criticism, says more about the writer than it does about the work itself — and while I can’t excuse that flagrant abuse of the english language, I can theorize that maybe my intense and/or delirious fixation on the song’s lyrics was inspired by a need to avoid thinking about this actual music. The most glaring problem here is that the sound of the drop — the thing that the entire lyric conceit of the song is based around, that Taggart dramatically builds up to during the chorus — in no way resembles a siren. What it does sound like is a chicken. An aggressively clucking chicken, sure, but not one you could, like, dance to, or anything. And even if you weren’t interested in dancing, is there any reason you’d want to subject yourself to this harsh, repetitive sound? This is nothing against trap music or dubstep or any other variant of EDM that involves aggressive, unpleasant noise that is impossible to dance to — catch me down at the number 4 spot for more on this — but even within this particular subgenre, there has to be a limit on what sort of nonsense we’re expected to endure.
8. You Owe Me
An enjoyably dark song that finds the Chainsmokers fully embracing their aspirations to be an alternative rock band with bitchin’ EDM drops, this is the sort of song that “Sick Boy” (the first single of 2018) seemed to promise for this album cycle. The problem is in the particulars. One problem: the limp and empty-headed “fuck the haters” verses don’t quite live up to the bitter condemnations of the chorus; the sarcastic use of the word “awesome” reeks of mid-2000’s internet humor, and references to “the papers” are weirdly anachronistic in a band that’s always embraced modern technology in their songwriting. Another problem: for all the improvement he’s shown since “Closer”, Taggart still doesn’t quite have the voice to sell this sort of venom, and it’s not necessarily his range that’s teh problem. His diction is all over the place here, to the point where many amateur music critics were confused about whether or not the second iteration of the chorus changed the word “dead” to “there,” altering the meaning and, some would argue, improving the song drastically.
7. Beach House
Speaking of Taggart’s voice — and being as I am also a person with a serviceable-at-best voice that nevertheless loves to sing, this is a topic I have a lot of thoughts on — his biggest problem has always been that he’s working in the wrong genre. Taggart voice isn’t the best fit for the type of shiny and polished radio-friendly pop that his band produces — which is why he sounds so much more at home among the jagged, unpolished chaos of “Save Yourself” — but if you heard someone like him singing in a confessional, literary indie-rock band, something like Okkervil River or even Neutral Milk Hotel, it wouldn’t be out of place at all. It would scan as authentic; it might actually make you like him more. I don’t expect Andrew Taggart to usurp John Darnielle’s place in the indie rock canon any time soon, but “Beach House” seems like a good example of what we can expect when Taggart inevitably grows tired with being “one of the #SELFIE guys” and releases a solo record: lots of electronic flourishes, but with a hook built around lightly strummed guitars and nakedly romantic lyrics. He’s still got room to grow as a writer — he’ll need to drop any references to red pills, for one — but “Beach House,” even though its a sonic rehash of “Youth” from Memories…Do Not Open, suggests what path that growth might follow. Also, you can tell from the way he sings on this and a bunch of other Sick Boy songs that he just learned how to belt and it’s really endearing.
6. Hope (feat. Winona Oak)
For a while, the Chainsmokers were the sort of producer act whose songs were defined entirely by their guest vocalist. Most of the time, this was a good thing: “Let You Go,” “Roses”, and even “Waterbed” are competently-made tracks undeniably elevated by the person singing over them. Yes, sometimes this strategy resulted in with the heavily-processed cheese of “Good Intentions” or the utter blandness of “New York City,” a song I have unsuccessfully tried to force myself to like on multiple occasions, but for the most part, you can see why folks like Diplo or David Guetta or Benny Blanco leave the singing the professionals. But there is another path, a path walked by a man who was born under the name Adam Richard Wiles but who deemed himself ‘Calvin Harris’ because he deemed it “a bit more racially ambiguous” (yikes) — the path of the producer who (sometimes) sings on their own songs. The Chainsmokers chose to walk this path and, for the most part, they’ve never looked back. While I personally have no problem with Taggart’s voice – the unpolished quality of his vocals is the thing that fueled my initial obsession with Memories…Do Not Open – and while only the least generous among us would deny that he has improved in the past two years, it’s hard to ignore that “Hope” would be a lot better without him.
The music itself, based around what is either a xylophone or possibly a marimba, is a unusually evocative (for the Chainsmokers themselves and for EDM-pop as a genre) and the vocals from Swedish singer-songwriter Winona Oak (who possesses a deep, smoky voice and an extremely powerful jaw) threaten to push this song over the line into the rarified realm of the genuinely good Chainsmokers songs, the type of song that I can play at a party without being made fun of. And the lyrics aren’t bad, either! Building a song around the idea of hope as a counterpoint to love, positioning hope as a negative, harmful thing – all that is very interesting. But Taggart just feels out of place. His vocals aren’t mixed with the same inventiveness as Oak’s, and the narrative of the song doesn’t really support a second perspective the way “Closer” does. I understand the impulse to have Drew’s voice on every song, from a branding perspective and an artistic perspective – and I support both! – but this shouldn’t have been a duet. Still sounds cool, though.
5. This Feeling (feat. Kelsea Ballerini)
Sure, this is basically “Closer” with the rough edges sanded away — no offhanded mentions of budding alcoholism or references to beloved pop-punk songs, just a lot of posturing about being true to yourself in the face of judgement from your friends (judgement which is probably either imagined or completely justified). And yes, it’s a little suspicious that the Chainsmokers built a dance-pop song around a country artist just months after their esteemed colleague Zedd scored a major hit by doing the same thing with “The Middle.” And yeah, the song is troublingly emblematic of the cynical strategy that the band embraced in the second half of 2018, after their new darker material failed to chart and they seemed to be embracing every style they thought might net them another “Paris”-level success. But if you put all that aside, it’s a solid little pop song, it’s another entry in the all-too-short list of decent karaoke duets, and most importantly, it passes the Weezer Test; named in honor of the famously inconsistent band’s post-2000’s singles, the Weezer Test requires you to ask yourself one question: “If this song were performed by a band that I had never heard of before, would I like it?” Songs that pass this test include: “This Is Such A Pity”, “Feels Like Summer”, and, of course, “This Feeling.”
4. Save Yourself (feat. NGHTMRE)
Forget about the fact that featured guest producer NGHTMRE is probably responsible for at least 80% of this song, and forget about the fact that, despite the subtle distinction between trap and bass music, this sounds like the kind of thing that even hack comedy writers stopped making fun of three years ago – well, not all of them – and please consider the fact that this song absolutely fucking goes. The three distinct drops in between the ominous-yet-vaguely-inspirational verses all match each other for intensity but are distinct enough that they don’t all blend together. This is powerful, aggressive music, the kind of thing that makes you want to do a high-intensity workout or tear a sink out of the wall or reorganize your entire apartment. You know: wild shit. I don’t know how you would dance to this, but I would love to find out and immediately start doing it at every concert I go to, unless the appropriate form of movement is moshing, in which case I will stand anxiously at the edge of the pit, nodding with admiration but slowly edging towards the wall of the venue.
3. Sick Boy
Folks, let us not mince words here: this is song is a bit silly. It’s hard to ignore the goofiness of the verses, with all that borderline-nonsensical talk about the east and west side of America. The central rhyme (“They say that I am the sick boy/easy to say when you don’t take the risk, boy”) is kind of hilarious both for its sloppy construction and for the implication that being one of the Chainsmokers is in any way a “risk”. Really, the whole idea of the guys who made “#SELFIE” doing a big, dramatic and dark song about depression and narcissism in the Internet age is inherently silly – and yet, the first time I heard this song, it blew me away. It had such an impact on me that I ended up devoting a year to writing about this band and trying to figure out exactly what it was about this song that had such a massive impact on me. And I have come to realize that the very silliness that turned so many people off is exactly why the song works for me.
It’s ridiculous to think that a band so widely regarded as shallow, superficial and obnoxious could say anything insightful about the human condition, but I remain steadfast in my belief that the bridge of this song (“feed yourself on my life’s work/how many likes is my life worth”) is a genuinely clever lyric that gets at something very real about the way that an algorithmically-defined need for content sucks the life out of those who attempt to feed it. Maybe it’s just me; maybe, in order to get anything out of “Sick Boy”, you have to be so terminally online that you will search the lyrics of any slightly unusual pop song for hidden meanings. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t matter. Even if I were the only person in the world who liked this song, it wouldn’t matter, for the three minutes I’m listening to this song, as far as my experience is concerned, I am the only person in the world. Maybe that sounds silly or even a little solipsistic, but hey, three minutes isn’t a long time; it’s definitely not enough time to worry about shit like that.
2. Side Effects (feat. Emily Warren)
Emily Warren’s noble-yet-quixotic quest to legitimize the Chainsmokers remains a source of much fascination to me, so much so that this November I travelled all the way to the other end of the G train (local humor! we love it!) to see her perform. It’s hard to tell what she’s getting out if, aside from a steady paycheck – Warren once said that she and the Chainsmokers have never written a song together that didn’t get released, a statement that either demonstrates the efficiency of their collaborative process or reveals just how hard up Taggart and Pall are for decent songs. And while it is also hard to ignore the feeling that Warren will someday give a devastating tell-all interview about her time with the band so disturbing that it will force me to douse this entire blog with gasoline, for the time being, their partnership seems marked by creativity and respect.
In a just world, “Side Effects” would have been the group’s most successful song since “Paris” – in the awful hell-scented fleshworld we inhabit, it petered out just below “Sick Boy”, which is odd, and not just because of the shamelessly click-baiting video featuring one of the stars of the inexplicably popular Riverdale. When considering how some songs would be received critically if they weren’t associated with the endlessly toxic Chainsmokers brand, “Side Effects” surpasses even “This Feeling” and “Hope” to enters the realm of the Truly Good Pop Song With No Qualifiers Necessary, a song so undeniably decent that even though it was produced by the Chainsmokers, I would be completely unashamed to play this song for friends and family alike. Not to be a downer, but if this song can’t break the Chainsmokers out of the commercial tailspin they’ve been in since 2017, I’m not sure what could.
1. Everybody Hates Me
Pop music, maybe more so than any other art form, is meant to be universal. This is by and large a good thing, and accounts for much of my fascination with the genre; what could be more interesting than a near-universal musical language? But sometimes, the overwhelming need to appeal and relate to as many people as possible can stifle creativity, or, even worse, make the whole medium feel totally artificial. I know that Drake, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift all experience the same heartbreaks and joys as the rest of humanity because they are all (allegedly) human as well, but really, we don’t have that much in common. The average day of a normal, non-famous person might have some superficial similarities to the average day of a pop star, but their existence is in many ways incomprehensible to someone like me.
All this is to say that, while I may roll my eyes at something like Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” or audibly groan every time I remember that Post Malone has a song literally called “Rich And Sad”, I actually really like it when rich and famous musicians make songs about how rich and famous they are. One of my favorite examples in the past few years is Future’s verse from Maroon 5’s “Cold,” which cuts through the aggressively bland and unspecific lyrics of the rest of the song with the revelation that Future’s arguments with his beau got so heated that he actually had to stop hiring drivers for his expensive cars because he was so embarrassed by the things she was saying. That’s a perfect, almost novelistic detail about a lifestyle I will never experience, and I’ll remember it long after the sound of Adam Levine’s nasal droning has finally left my mind. This is why “Everybody Hates Me” is the best Chainsmokers song of 2018, and possibly the best song they have ever released: because it’s a song about becoming famous off a novelty song based around a dumb internet joke only to find yourself turning into a dumb internet joke. It’s a song about the perils of smart-phone addiction and internet brain poisoning written by someone who is painfully aware that their livelihood couldn’t exist without both of those things. It is, simply put, a song that only the Chainsmokers could have made. And that is beautiful.