If you’ve got a Chicago Public Library card, you may know about Hoopla, which is the counterpart digital platform available to CPL patrons. Last night I became a ‘paradox of choice’ victim while looking at Netflix, so I decided to see what movies were on Hoopla. Apparently I wasn’t in a film mood, so I clicked over to see what music was available on the platform. Lots of soundtracks, a few major releases, and then a compilation called “Best of 2017”.

I decided to download it (albums stay on your device for 7 days) and check out what I’ve been missing. I had never heard of any of these artists or songs (minus Kendrick Lamar, and Justin Bieber who appears as a guest on one track). I peeked at the Billboard Top 100 of 2017 and saw some of the songs scattered about, but the 50 included on “Best of 2017” were gathered in mysterious ways. Probably whatever Hoopla already had the rights to.

Today I listened to the first 10 songs on the compilation and took notes on each in the interest of “Seeing what the hell has been going on in popular music”. At some point in the near future, I may write about the next 10 on the track list.

I’d like to try incorporating some of the conventions that have been musically popular lately. I’m not going to start mimicing the tracks in any way. I just want to see, half for fun, what happens if I apply some of these techniques to my own songwriting / musical style.

After my notes, I’ll do a summation of the tracks. Feel free to skip ahead to the summation. Let’s do it!

1. Despacito – Remix (Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, ft. Justin Bieber) 3:49

Simple but pleasant chord changes. Strong vocal, simple repetitive melody. Nice that this song mixes English and Spanish vocals. Spanish guitar samples, keyboards, bass drum on every beat, like many dance tracks… this is called “four on the floor” in muso speak. Sparse verses- just vocal and keyboard chords. I like to think that a bilingual song like this brings people together. For my notes I should keep in mind that this is a remix, and not the actual hit single, which I assume Hoopla does not have the rights to at this time.

2. HUMBLE (Kedrick Lamar) 2:58

Hip-hop. Nice samples. Sampled (treated?) piano is holding down the somewhat catchy bass-line. Waiting to hear if there’s a definite chorus part. “Mi amo, bitch, sit down” seems to be the chorus. The other lyrics talk of Photoshop, Ted Talks, and Niggas. That driving piano bass part I mentioned earlier is truly the main musical hook of the song.

3. Stay (Zedd, Alessia Cara) 3:30

Track has a simulated vinyl record crackling going on. Somewhat subtle. Double chorus hits right around the 1 minute mark (like ‘they’ say should happen). First half of chorus is actually acapella with a vocoder (which changes some of the voices into a robotic- yet melodic- sound). Second half of chorus has only vocals and drum machine snare (no bass line to speak of). 2nd verse begins, still very vocal driven and there are very understated drums. No standard drum kits in any of these first three songs). Interesting to think about… I use them in every song.

4. Congratulations (Post Malone, Quavo) 3:40

This guy is graduating- from high school? College? Congrats either way! Vocal heavy intro with harmonies over keyboard pads and a hard panned (left) monophonic lead synth playing a very simple phrase. Drums (or percussion) is constantly dropping out and coming back in. All these cool vocals make me want to get back in touch with TROY in Haifa (Israel) to see if he wants to do some more backup vocals for me (he did a chant for me on my song “Lightbulbs”). There goes the beat again at the end. All these tracks so far lead me to believe that a constant beat may be- overrated?

5. Believer (Imagine Dragons) 3:24

I know the name of this band because I’ve seen it at the bottom of the screen during a car commercial once or twice. Can’t recall the music or the brand of car. First verse is beat and two nylon-guitar string notes playing over and over. No bass. Chorus is same music as verse, only with a few more parts (including bass). Verse two, no bass either. As with all of these tracks, the vocal is king, and the vocal melody carries the song. The instruments are totally wallpaper for the singer. I haven’t been paying much attention to the lyrics in any of these tracks. Maybe I’ll make another pass at some point and write about the lyrics. Maybe not. Probably not.

6. There’s Nothing Holding Me Back (Shawn Mendes) 3:19

First verses have no bass! What’s going on here? Drums in the past couple songs have been a little tribal. Think- lots of toms and no snare. Even the chorus has barely any bass, and when it’s there it’s not moving or melodic at all. This stuff is very simple.

7. Issues (Julia Michaels) 2:56

First verse has only vocals with pizzicato string section. Last 16 bars before chorus adds a very simple bass. Drum beat is very sparse, when it’s there at all. Nice backup melodies at the end.

8. Strip That Down (Liam Payne, Quavo) 3:25

Ah! A bass line. First verse sparse: vocals, bass line, and finger snaps. Chorus comes in and there’s a Roland 808 snare drum on 2s and 4s. Verse two back to almost nothing. Vocal samples used as rhythm elements. Low voice counter melody. Dig the chorus melody.

9. 1-800-273-8255 (Logic, Alessia Cara, Khalid) 4:11

I think this is the longest song so far, clocking in a bit over four minutes. Most musical intro so far (actual chords!) First verse- again- just vocals over these simple keyboard pads. Here comes a beat in the chorus. Still no hi-hat, or ride cymbal, or anything keeping the 8th notes or 16th notes. I don’t think the beats in any of these songs accent those points. I do it, almost as a rule. Do I need to? Just kick and snare going on- if that. Bass is there just to hold down the root note of the chord- still nothing really moving around in the bass.

10. Mama (Jonas Blue, William Singe) 3:04

Chords, bass, drums… first song with what my 1980’s ass would call a ‘full arrangement’, but everything still feels extraordinarily sparse. Until the pre-chorus. Lots of layered vocals here and a big lead up to… well, the song just drops everything. Only vocals, fingersnaps on 2 and 4, and some kind of thumb piano or marimba. Probably thumb piano. “Hey Mama! We’re gonna be alright.”

SUMMATION: It’s been a very long time since I’ve paid attention to popular music. The majority of the time it’s when I’m in a Lyft, or when commercials come on tv in a restaurant or bar (I am one of those annoying yet proud “I don’t own a tv” people). Even after only 10 songs I’ve been able to identify some major differences between what I’m used to, what I do, and what the kids are doing these days.

  1. Drums? Who needs ’em. None of these songs have a real drum kit. It’s all drum machine, and percussion. When there is a rhythm part (it’s usually not even there for half the song) it’s totally sparse. No accents on 8 or 16th notes, only quarter notes (think 1,2,3,4).
  2. Bass? Who needs it? Only one of these songs had a bass line to latch onto (Kedrick Lamar) and even in that case it was carried by a piano sample. The bass, like the rhythm, will drop out from time to time. If it’s there, it’s understated and only serving to play the root note of whatever chord is going on.
  3. Vocals are king. Most of these songs begin with only vocals over a very sparse background. The vocal melody is obviously the biggest ingredient of hits in 2017. As I mentioned earlier in my list- the music is really just wallpaper for the vocal tracks.
  4. Not a lot of melodic movement. Only a handful of these songs can be played on a piano or guitar. There simply isn’t anything going on harmonically. Once or twice there were discernible chords going on, and when they were they just seemed to loop rather than lead to different places.

Where does this leave me? I don’t know. Up til now, most of my arrangements are ridiculously thick compared to the hits of 2017. I’ll usually have several guitars, a bunch of keyboards, drum kit, and electronic loops ‘n such going on too. It’s as if these songs are musical pamphlets, and I make encyclopedias. Not saying these songs aren’t good; they’re just really simple.

I’ve still got many songs to make this month for RPM 2018, so I’m going to try some of this stuff out. Go easy on the bass for once. Maybe drop out the drum kit for the verses. In my first song of the month, “Stay Up Late” for the bridge I got rid of the kit and 808 loop I had in there, and just went with 8th notes on the ride cymbal. I was hesitant because I thought it would be too thin. After listening to this 2017 stuff… Sheesh.

So, this has been a good exercise. I’m thinking that I should probably tackle the next ten on the list at some point in the next few weeks. Maybe when I’m in a mood to do so. I have a suspicion that it’s only going to reveal more of the same points, but even if that happens, the points will just be reinforced.

Thanks for reading along, and feel free to chime in! What were your favorite tracks of 2017? Leave your input in the handy comments box below.

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