As we wind our way toward the second half of the century's second decade, the American Top 40 is in radical flux. This isn't because pop is becoming any more or less innovative; rather, it's the counting, the data analysis that determines what stands as our most popular music that's changed. Radio is only one factor now, and record stores, which for decades moved the physical product that carried beloved music into people's homes, cars and headphones, now hang on valiantly but tenuously to their corner of influence. Even online purchases mostly involve the transmission of zeroes and ones instead of platters and cassettes. Pop's nature is even more radically affected by two central activities — streaming and sharing — that take fans' ownership completely out of the equation. That private process of plunking a discrete data storage format into a device to make it speak dreams and shape one's musical experience is mostly over, replaced by listening while Tweeting, making parody and tribute videos, and creating playlists with names like "Your Favorite Coffeehouse" and "Cardio."
So what has that done to music that's always been defined by sharing, the mainstream hits that come to stand for every year's zeitgeist? Commenting in this winter's Slate Music Club (to which I also belong), charts guru and frequent NPR Music contributor Chris Molanphy noted that while a conventional, radio-oriented reading might lead commentators to despair at increasing consolidation, in fact what's emerging through YouTube and Spotify is glorious variety. He focused on 2014's most discussed chart-toppers — the booty-shakers and girl-gang anthems and Taylor Swift juggernauts that not only rule the radio, but also generate endless online analysis. The list below shores up his point by doing something different: showing how the variety he celebrates played out not only in this small list of No. 1's, but throughout the year-end Hot 100 chart this year.
As in previous years, I followed some rules to create the Top 10 Top 40. All of the songs included (with one exception that proves some things) were issued as singles in 2014, though some appeared on albums earlier than that. None have been featured as part of NPR Music's other year-end lists (which, this year, narrowed the field, since our fantabulous Songs App tripled the number of faves we featured and allowed for more mainstream delicacies.) Neither did I focus on the hot-button numbers endlessly shaken, fancied and dissected from the bottom to the top in online think pieces. So much focus on a small number of provocations almost takes them out of the realm of music, into multimedia (I'm looking at you, "Anaconda"), and I'm interested in the ordinary: the stuff people gravitate toward not because they need to have an opinion about it, but because, you know, they actually like to listen, dance and sing along to it. And maybe make a Vine out of it. Because more than ever before, pop belongs to the people, and they're reinventing it every day.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This year, pop music was dominated by just a few songs. There was the multi-month chart-topping "All About That Bass" from Meghan Trainor. There was also "Rude" from Magic, and there was the YouTube-dominating "Anaconda" from Nicki Manaj. Hit after hit sucked all the air out of the room.
Well, NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers has been digging into the year-end pop charts, and she says that just below that upper echelon of monster hits, there are riches to be found. And, Ann, you are all about that bass. It's always fun to talk about music with you. Welcome back to the program.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: No treble, David.
GREENE: (Laughter) So give us some treats. What have you brought us?
POWERS: I wanted to start with one of my favorite realms within pop - the land of the boy band. So we're going to hear a boy duo called MKTO with their song "Classic."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLASSIC")
MKTO: (Singing) Oh, pretty baby, this world might have gone crazy. The way you saved me, who could blame me when I just want to make you smile? I want to thrill you like Michael. I want to kiss you like Prince. Let's get it on like Marvin Gaye, like Hathaway, write a song for you like this.
GREENE: This is great.
POWERS: Yeah totally. And, I mean, you know, they make the obvious Michael Jackson and Prince references, but they throw Donny Hathaway in there. You have to like that. These are two young guys - Malcolm Kelly and Tony Oller - who met on the set of a Nickelodeon-related show called "Gigantic."
What's interesting, David, is that teen pop, and specifically what we call boy bands, now hold up the torch really for classic rock and soul. This year, we had the breakthrough of the wonderful Australian band 5 Seconds of Summer, who, I mean, to me are just, like, almost a punk band. They're a pop-punk band for sure, but it's really good music and not only tweens should have it.
GREENE: What are you saying they're carrying the torch for R&B? I mean, these two guys are reaching back and talking about Donny Hathaway, the great soul singer? I mean, what do you mean by that?
POWERS: They're tapping into that quality of it that's about love and fun and dancing, and I really like that about it.
GREENE: OK, so that's "Classic." How about something right now? You have an R&B song that you feel like captures the sound of the moment.
POWERS: Yes. Right now, some young artists are making truly cutting-edge music that connects with electronic music, that is deeply invested in hip-hop and that reaches back to a different legacy - the legacy of artists like Aaliyah, producers like Timbaland. So the track we're going to listen to was produced by a young guy named DJ Mustard, and it is by the singer Tinashe and is called "2 On."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2 On")
TINASHE: (Singing) We can mob all in the whip. Make the money. Make the grip. I be stuntin' with my clique. Getting faded 'till we trip. Man, I love to get on. I love to get 2 on.
GREENE: You really do feel the electronic mixing in in a kind of interesting way.
POWERS: Yeah, and this whole album by Tinashe - it's very ambient. It's kind of psychedelic. It really goes beyond cliches of R&B. And I just have to shout out DJ Mustard, too, who had more than a dozen hits on the top 40 this year with those minimalist beats that blend kind of elements of house and Southern hip-hop music in a way that's very accessible, but still, I think, really sophisticated.
GREENE: We probably have time for one more. What else do you have?
POWERS: Well, I wanted to really talk about the future, David, where I think pop music is going and America is going, which is to become a truly multicultural, multilingual place. And nobody's repping that harder than Enrique Iglesias.
GREENE: A familiar name.
POWERS: (Laughter) He's had 25 hits or something like that. He's the great ambassador of Latin pop. And this year, he had a really great party song called "Bailando."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAILANDO: ENGLISH VERSION")
ENRIQUE IGLESIAS: (Singing) I want to be contigo and live contigo and dance contigo. Para have contigo. Una noche loca. Ay besar tu boca. I want to be contigo and live contigo and dance contigo. Para have contigo.
GREENE: So, Ann Powers, as we wrap up 2014, it feels like there's a lot of variety in pop. I mean, what's going on? Are people kind of segregating into smaller niches, or is this because each listener really wants a diverse experience when they're listening?
POWERS: I think we're in a moment that's a lot like the mid-'50s. At that time, rock 'n' roll was all about indie labels from different regions of the country offering new sounds. And right now, the regions are not physical; they're more like regions in cyberspace. And all of these regions are bubbling up and producing different sounds and crossing over and talking to each other in these songs. At the top of the charts, it may seem things are very much the same. But just go a little deeper and you'll see, I think, that rich, bubbling - I don't know - that bubbling swamp that's going to produce the next amazing thing. So I'm excited about right now in pop.
GREENE: I am, too. Hanging out in a bubbling swamp with NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers...
POWERS: With Enrique Iglesias, that's really what I want to be doing.
GREENE: Oh, my. Thank you, Ann.
POWERS: Thank you, David. Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.