Posted by Christopher Will on 04/13 at 06:55 PM
Top 40 Radio can be both a blessing and a curse. It does a near flawless job of keeping its ridiculously large audience in sync with the hottest pop songs, particularly from those emperors and empresses that reign unchecked over radio waves and billboard charts. If Katy Perry has a new single, you’ll definitely hear it. If Lady Gaga has a single that hit #1 eight months ago, you’ll STILL hear it. If a previously unknown artist releases a single that manages to drag itself into the top 40, you’ll hear it, and if it happens to hit #1, you’ll never unhear it (“We Are Young,” I’m talking to you).
On the other side of the argument, sometimes the same artists clog the radio waves with so much of their gunk that other musicians who deserve the same recognition are pushed to the side and ignored. So while Britney Spears, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and everyone else in between skip joyously around the top of the tiers of pop music fame, there are lesser-known artists who are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into the studio. In vocal booths, bedrooms, and bars, lyrics, sounds, and songs brew and bend genres, and bring new meaning to the term “pop music.”
Below are five of the best pop hits that lie under the radar - five songs that many people don’t know, but should know. They come from artists’ familiar and unfamiliar, and albums critically acclaimed but yet, with tracks lying dormant. If you’ve heard of these sparkling gems then I tip my hat to you. If they seem foreign, then assimilate them into your music library and give them a home.
Azealia Banks is the indie Nicki Minaj. It’s a blunt statement, but it’s an accurate one, as Banks carries herself with the same confidence and poise that helped make Minaj an international pop/rap star. Like Minaj, Banks takes heavy influence from rap but doesn’t restrict herself to any particular genre. Every song she puts out, from the rip-roaring, Diplo’d up track “F**k Up The Fun” to her quirky, indie pop take of Interpol’s “Slow Hands”, encompasses a wide range of musical elements. Her only official release has been her debut single, “212.” However, with that single alone, she has generated enough buzz to reach almost every corner of globe. It has yet to take off in the United States, but it’s a burning wildfire in the music blogosphere, with fans and critics alike praising her for her unabashed lyrics and gunshot flow. “212” currently resides in the top 20 on the UK singles charts, and with time and patience, hopefully it will catch on in the States.
“212” opens up with a loud, almost tribal drumbeat, joined soon after by a second background beat. “Hey, I can be the answer.” are the first words out of Banks’ mouth, and from there, she proves that she is in fact, the answer. As a rising synthesizer carries Banks crisp, rhythmic verse into the pre-chorus, she switches quickly into a mocking tone, over enunciating her words as if to prove that she can casually ramble in a track and STILL sound good. Crunchy Ibiza-style production assists in making Banks’ rap-talking even more striking, and once the pre-chorus drops into ambiance and Banks introduces us to her smoky vibrato in the chorus, it’s clear why this song put her on the road to pop eminence.
Yeah, Gotye! You know, that one dude who sings that one song on the radio that goes “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” Tongue-and-cheek aside, Gotye’s album Making Mirrors is a murky pool of brilliant alternative rock, containing 12 full-bodied tracks, each stronger and stranger than the last. “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a bit of a dark horse in the American mainstream music scene, even though it topped charts around the world months before it even appeared on American radio. Many of the other songs on Making Mirrors have that same offbeat appeal, catchy enough to evoke a second glance, or in this case listen, but certainly nothing to call “sell-out.” Out of all these tracks, “Easy Way Out” easily stands out.
“Easy Way Out” is a radio-ready diamond in the rough. Muddy synths and tambourines mix with a sharp guitar riff before Gotye’s voice comes in wearily at sort of a melodic whisper. As is typical with many of Gotye’s songs, little sparks of creative genius flit back and forth throughout the song, such as the vocal modification in the pre-chorus and a barely recognizable harp in the second pre-chorus. The chorus presents a fantastic hook, and appropriately enough, is melodically similar to the beginning of the Beatles’ classic hit “Day Tripper,” particularly when the Beatles sing: “Got a good reason for taking the easy way out.” Lyrically, the song takes us through Gotye’s depiction of apathy and depression, but if apathy and depression birth a tune this fantastic, then Gotye must be doing something right.
It’s almost unnecessary to single out one of The Ready Set’s songs as a hit, because they all could and should be on the radio. Feel Good Now plays out in typical The Ready Set fashion. Every song is basically one big hook, and Jordan’s falsetto constantly breaks through clouds of fluffy, cotton candy construction. “Killer” is one of the darker tracks on the EP, and is pretty unique in terms of The Ready Set’s sound. Oh, and it’s really, really catchy. But again, that’s just stating the obvious.
“Killer” finds The Ready Set taking a page out of Panic! At The Disco’s book, opening with a retro piano riff, sharp lyrics, and strong, faced-paced vocals. Harmonizing background vocals transition to a fiery chorus and round out the verses. A dubstep-ish bridge automatically makes “Killer” radio-friendly, and references to alcohol give it that party-capable edge. “Killer” draws lyrical comparisons to Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart,” as Jordan warns the listener that he’s not capable of love: “I’m no good for you, this heart ain’t built for two, so runaway…” he wails, before growling “I’m a love killer.”
If there’s one song here that you’re the most likely to know, it’s “F**k U Betta.” Even if you aren’t familiar with the name, if you enjoy the nightlife then you’ve probably heard it, as its already hit #1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Songs chart. It’s no surprise that “F**k U Betta” topped the Billboard dance charts, as the song embodies everything a club hit should be. It’s overtly sexual, incredibly dancy, and annoyingly catchy. Neon Hitch may have made her major debut through the hook in Gym Class Heroes’ “Ass Back Home,” but with “F**k U Betta,” and with her debut slated for the summer, she’s a surefire hit-maker waiting to happen.
Penned when her boyfriend left her for a model, Neon Hitch mixes cutting bitterness with confidence and crafts a track that’s simply written but powerfully executed. You could call the instrumentation typical, but with a song this raunchy, the clicking synthesizers and dubstep-inspired breakdowns fit perfectly. Hitch admits she isn’t one of the prettiest (which is debatable after watching the music video), but she knows what she’s good at, and she knows why she’s worth staying with. If you’re into this kind of thing, and more specifically, her kind of thing, then check out some of her other songs, particularly “Bad Dog” and “Poisoned By Love.”
It should be considered a crime that Breathe Carolina has only dropped one single from Hell Is What You Make It. As great as “Blackout” is, there are at least half a dozen other veritable tracks on the album that could be released to the radio. The biggest crime, however, is the fact that the album track “Sweat It Out” has gone unnoticed. Not only is “Sweat It Out” the magnum opus of Breathe Carolina’s musical direction, but it also bends and twists the definition of pop into almost an entirely different genre.
“Sweat It Out” isn’t just a song, it’s a war. The track begins in Kyle’s domain, as a vocal loop yells out “Rumblin!” while aggressive, blaring synths slash across the musical landscape like a ravaging pack of wolves. Kyle’s unclean vocals lead the pack, ripping through the production with guttural ferocity and power, “Bass in my chest, and I can barely breathe!” David barely keeps his head above the fray with his tuneful voice “I’m out of time, I just might catch fire.” The song settles into a stalemate in the pre-chorus. Glossy, sturdy clicks and beeps come in as Kyle swaps his screaming for singing to keep up with David’s hooks. The chorus is where we find David the most comfortable, as his vocals stand resolute, protected by the fuzzy, catchy instrumentation, while Kyle combats with his breathy falsetto. The two seem to even be duking it out lyrically. “It won’t be pretty when the lights come back” warns David in the chorus, but Kyle fires back, challenging him with “turn em’ on, turn em’ on for me.” Raw, dirty, and authoritative, “Sweat It Out” is a dance track, but one of the most violent dance tracks that’s ever graced mainstream music. Yes, top 40 radio usually doesn’t have a place for screamo, but that doesn’t mean that “Sweat It Out” can’t win the hearts of club-dwellers and mosh-pitters alike.
The radio can be an effective medium for fresh music, but sometimes it’s a bit too prejudicial. That’s why it pays to keep an eye under the radar and stay one step ahead of the charts and the airwaves. You can determine yourself what makes a song “good” or “bad,” and which musicians have the talent and ability to produce great works of art. If you enjoy any or all of these songs, check out more music by the respective artists. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you find.
Author: Christopher Will
Bio: Christopher Will is a junior studying Communications and English at Penn State. He enjoys scouring the internet for the latest pop music news and gossip, and loves sharing new music with his friends and peers. Some of his favorite artists include Breathe Carolina, Fun., Childish Gambino, Gotye, Yellowcard, and Robyn.
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