Radio Hits One: Kelly Clarkson, Lionel Richie And Countrified Pop Tunes

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After Kelly Clarkson went to No. 1 on Billboard's Country Songs chart last year with the Jason Aldean duet "Don't You Wanna Stay," I wondered hopefully if the Texas-born pop star would finally go country with her next album. So I was a little disappointed a few months later, when she debuted the bland "Mr. Know It All" as the lead single from her fourth album, Stronger. But months after the song came and went as a moderate Hot 100 success (it peaked at No. 10) and was supplanted on pop airwaves by the chart-topping follow-up "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," something happened that made my initial reaction quite ironic: "Mr. Know It All" was remixed as a country song. It peaked at No. 21 on Country Songs earlier this month, and cable country music networks have the video in heavy rotation—the same video VH1 was airing six months ago, with a new audio track dubbed in.

"Mr. Know It All" seems like an odd candidate for the country treatment in many ways. Brett James, a country songwriter who's penned hits for Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood, had a hand in the original, but he was just one member of a large team of writers and producers dominated by writer Ester Dean and producer Brian Kennedy, who've both worked on chart-topping Rihanna singles and a bevy of other R&B hits. Country has always placed a high value on big emotional ballads and carefully crafted lyrics; this is a strident midtempo song with the painfully vapid opening couplet, "Mr. Know It All, you think you know it all/ but you don't really know it all, ain't it something, y'all?" Perhaps it was simply the presence of "y'all" that marked the song for country crossover potential.

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Three Other Reasons Why Sales Of Old Records Are Outpacing Sales Of New Ones

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The top three catalog albums of 2012 so far. (Whitney Houston's Whitney The Greatest Hits is No. 1.)
This week the news came out that sales of catalog albums outpaced those of new records during the first six months of 2012. Current (less than 18 months old) albums sold 73.9 million copies between January 2 and June 1, down from 82.8 million in the first six months of 2011; catalog albums sold 76.6 million copies, up from 72.6 million over last year's first half. My Seattle Weekly colleague Chris Kornelis went in-depth about how pricing of new releases vs. catalog titles helped create this scenario; deep discounting of certain older albums, in both physical and digital form, certainly makes the prospect of buying them more alluring to those people who simply want to add something, anything to their libraries. There's also the simple fact that there are simply more albums by well-known artists in the "catalog" side of things, not to mention the corollary that labels are getting more savvy about exploiting their vaults. (Hey, it saves money on recording!) But there are a few other factors at play that involve how people discover music in 2012, and they run the gamut from radio to the iTunes Store to the shelves at Target.


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Radio Hits One: Will Grouplove And Walk The Moon Follow fun. And Gotye On The Crossover Path?

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Both fun.'s "We Are Young" and Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know." topped the Hot 100 and the Alternative Songs chart, and did so in quick succession. The success of both those songs after a number of years when songs from the Alternative Songs chart seemed to be almost completely absent from pop radio might portend a cultural sea change, or at least the instant impact of Billboard beginning to factor Spotify streams into its formula for calculating the Hot 100.

Will a third alt-rock crossover rise to No. 1 this year? Will fun. and/or Gotye score big follow-ups, or begin to accrue the "one-hit wonder" stigma? I don't doubt that both will enjoy a healthy afterglow from their respective smashes—fun.'s "Some Nights" has already climbed to No. 8 on Alternative Songs and No. 41 on the Hot 100. But the future reception of those singles is up in the air. Will they continue to dominate both pop and alternative radio, or will they settle in one format? Both acts had followings prior to these songs—internationally in Gotye's case, and in the American indie/emo underground in fun.'s case—but neither had any previous Alternative Songs hits to establish that chart as their home base.

Ever since becoming a significant force in mainstream music in the early '90s, so-called "alternative rock" has struggled with an identity crisis about what, exactly, it's an alternative to—especially after it began to compete commercially with hard rock and metal. But even at its peak as a sales force, alt-rock has always been a relatively minor presence on the pop singles charts—Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" hit No. 6 on the Hot 100, but that victory helped open the floodgates for the band and its contemporaries to dominate album charts and rock airwaves. Hot 100 success remained elusive.


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Radio Hits One: Dan Wilson, Linda Perry, And Other Pop Footnotes Turned Hitmakers

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Dan Wilson's hits, then (left) and now.
It's a familiar scene to anyone who's seen VH1 programs like Behind The Music or Where Are They Now?, or the channel's endless lists of 'one-hit wonders' of the '80s and '90s: a musician whose brief fling with stardom is well behind them sits at the mixing desk of a studio, while the voiceover details that they're moving into production or songwriting, to help guide new talent. It usually feels like an unconvincing cliche, like an actor saying "But what I really want to do is direct."

I thought back to those scenes when the Dixie Chicks won Song of the Year at the 2007 Grammys for "Not Ready To Make Nice," and a familiar face got to accept the award with them: Dan Wilson, who less than a decade earlier had enjoyed fleeting fame as the frontman of Semisonic. Their 1998 single "Closing Time" reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart (which means it would've been a top 40 hit, if Billboard had allowed songs without a physical single onto the Hot 100 at the time), but none of the band's other singles were remotely as successful. So when Semisonic broke up just one album later, it'd be reasonable to assume Wilson too would disappear; instead Wilson scored big, first with the Dixie Chicks, and then with three songs on Adele's blockbuster album 21, including the chart-topper "Someone Like You."

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Gene Simmons Dubs Himself The Ultimate Judge Of Authenticity In Pop Music

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What authentic rock and roll looks like.
Kiss bass player/reality-TV star/political gadfly Gene Simmons let his legendary tongue loose earlier this week during a press conference announcing his band's summer tour with Mötley Crüe. The two-headed bill, which will be at the PNC Bank Arts Center on September 21 and Jones Beach on September 23, will apparently be a chance for people starved of such to hear "real music":

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100 & Single: Of Monkees, Michael, and "Maria"—The History Of The Chart-Dominating, Lifestyle-Accessory Album

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Cassandra (Tia Carrere): You've heard it?
Wayne (Mike Myers): Exqueeze me? Have I seen this one before? Frampton Comes Alive?! Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.
Wayne's World 2 (1993)

For chart geeks, the Monkees loom large. To us, the candy-colored group, which included among its members the recently departed Davy Jones, have a status probably no other cultural observers would give them: album artists. In fact, by one measure, the Monkees have one of the 15 top-performing albums of all time—and that list of outperforming discs is undergoing a shift right now, thanks to a certain best-selling fellow Brit.

But for all the Monkees' success on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart from 1966 through 1968—six Top Three hits, including three No. 1's—their real playground was the Billboard album chart. As veteran chart-watcher Paul Grein points out, the Monkees hold a distinction no other act has matched in 45 years: occupying the No. 1 spot with a record four albums in a single calendar year. With their first four discs, the group spent nearly two-thirds of 1967 monopolizing the top of what is now called the Billboard 200.

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Live-Blogging The 2012 Grammys: Tributes, Tribulations, Skrillex, And The Return Of Adele

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via Cats Who Look Like Skrillex
Will this cat win Best New Artist?
Welcome to Sound of the City's liveblog of the 54th Annual Grammys, coming to you live from a couch in Astoria. There are quite a few questions lurking around tonight's ceremony. Will Adele sweep the three major categories in which she's nominated, thus putting a cap on the megaselling, incredibly popular 21—and how will she sound in her live return? Will Skrillex (above, sorta) put a wub-wub-wub on the Best New Artist category? Will Bon Iver pout his way to the podium if he upsets Adele in Record or Song of the Year? Will Adam Levine upstage the Beach Boys when they share the stage? Will LL Cool J make at least 10 cross-promotional references to other CBS shows? Will Kanye West show up? Will the Whitney Houston tribute be okay? Tune in belooowwww!

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Oddsmaking: Will Mumford & Sons Upset "Rolling In The Deep" In The Grammys' Record Of The Year Race?

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Every year, when I get involved in Grammy debates with my cooler friends, I tell them the problem with the awards isn't that they reward mass-appeal schlock. If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is doing its job right, it should be rewarding popular, undeniable, and somewhat unhip records. The problem is that NARAS can't even reward the popular stuff right.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Record of the Year category, which, next to the coveted, show-closing Album of the Year prize, should be the marquee award of the night. If NARAS were on its game, it would nominate five high-gloss, career-defining singles that crushed at Top 40, R&B/hip-hop, country or rock radio and then give the big prize to a title that makes everyone say, Yeah, okay, love it or hate it, that record dominated.

Instead, Record of the Year has largely become a head-scratching nonevent, in which NARAS, like a middlebrow missile, homes in on a song that's neither hip enough to be a critics' favorite nor undeniable enough to appeal to the casual TV viewership. Just in the last decade, NARAS has given you such Records of the Year as the Dixie Chicks' most atonal and bile-filled single; two little-heard "event" duets by Ray Charles with Norah Jones, and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss; and a U2 song some like to call a "9/11 anthem," ignoring the fact that anthems are usually widely known and this song came out a year before the tragedy and missed the Hot 100, not even charting after 9/11. Even some of the better RotY picks have been wrongheaded—I happen to like Coldplay's "Clocks," winner in 2004, but over OutKast's "Hey Ya!" and Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love"? Way to miss the plot, NARAS. (I wish YouTube had a clip from the '04 show of presenter and friend-of-OutKast Mary J. Blige, visibly deflating when she opened the envelope and read "Clocks," like the word was "broccoli.")

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Oddsmaking: Will Thom Yorke Dance Away With The Short-Form Music Video Grammy?

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Unlike MTV's Video Music Awards, which usually reward some combination of pop excellence, symbolic audacity, and likelihood of being controversial, the Grammys' short-form music video category is a lot like the Oscars. They don't always pick the best videos—this year's list omits such highlights as Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass," Ke$ha's "Blow," the Beastie Boys' "Make Some Noise," and Beyoncé's "Girls (Who Run the World)"—but they do a good job of capturing the middlebrow zeitgeist, recognizing those videos that manage to combine critical respectability with popular appeal. Looking through their past winners, they generally pick the right one from the bunch ("Opposites Attract" in 1991, "Losing My Religion" in 1992, "Digging in the Dirt" in 1993). Their blind spot is the same one in every other category: older artists. That's why "Free as a Bird" beat "Tonight, Tonight" in 1997, and Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" won over Feist's "1234" in 2008. With no dead artists eligible this year, will the righteous (Adele) triumph? Or will Grammy voters give in to their lazier impulses and just pick OK Go?

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How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide

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Maybe it's all that misguided Year of the Woman chatter that dominated year-end roundups, or the slow, agonizing creep of Fashion Week, or the coming apocalypse, but hoo boy has there been a lot of terrible writing about female musicians in the past few weeks. The latest offender is the New York Times style magazine T's cover-worthy profile of Lana Del Rey, which manages to be offensive from its first sentence and somehow gets worse from there. (There are even photos by the terminally icky Terry Richardson.) This piece inspired me to put forth four questions that writers, whether they're male or female, whether they're people with Tumblrs or those important enough to score offices at the New York Times building, should ask themselves before hitting "send" on their next piece about a woman making music.

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