In my recent research I’ve become increasingly interested in the way mainstream songs behave like a Darwinist ecosystem (this is the book chapter where I set out these ideas in more detail). The theory goes that successful characteristics of songs self-propagate because hits influence songwriters to do more of the same – although this may eventually lead some songwriters to challenge what become mainstream norms. So it can be interesting to analyse the most successful ‘organisms’ in the environment to see which musical, structural and lyric characteristics are evident.
Early in 2013 I looked back at the top 10 airplayed songs of 2012 (see Take Me Down Like I’m a Four-chord Loop) and found a number of musically similar characteristics, notably a prevalence of four-chord loops and surprising lack of variation of tempo – half of the songs had a tempo of 128 beats per minute.
It occurs to me that the PPL top 10 is not the best metric to use to identify the most popular songs in a particular year, because these songs are selected by individual playlisters rather than massed listener preferences, meaning that the PPL top 10 is more likely to exhibit characteristics of daytime radio playlists (higher tempos, big choruses, danceable). So this time around I’ve used the top 10 biggest-selling singles according to the Official Charts Company. Here’s the list, with a Spotify playlist below:
|1||BLURRED LINES||ROBIN THICKE/TI/PHARRELL|
|2||GET LUCKY||DAFT PUNK FT PHARRELL WILLIAMS|
|3||WAKE ME UP||AVICII|
|4||LET HER GO||PASSENGER|
|5||LA LA LA||NAUGHTY BOY FT SAM SMITH|
|7||THRIFT SHOP||MACKLEMORE/RYAN LEWIS/WANZ|
|8||JUST GIVE ME A REASON||PINK FT NATE RUESS|
I’ve analysed these, noting BPM, time signature, lyric theme, lyric sub-theme, and a summary of the chorus chord structure, with verse/bridge chords if different. Here are the data.
Here’s a breakdown of BPM and lyric themes:
|BLURRED LINES||120||Love/sex||Consent and flirting|
|GET LUCKY||116||Dance/love||Party all night|
|WAKE ME UP||124||Love||Journey through life|
|LET HER GO||74||Love||Wistful|
|LA LA LA||125||Love||On the rocks|
|JUST GIVE ME A REASON||95||Love||Reunited|
|COUNTING STARS||122||Love||Conquers all|
And the chords used in the various sections:
|BLURRED LINES||120||G | G | G | G | D | D | D | D |||As chorus loop|
|GET LUCKY||116||Bm | D | F#m | E |||As chorus loop|
|WAKE ME UP||124||Bm G | D |||Bm G | D / / A | Bm G | D / / F#m ||
|LET HER GO||74||Cmaj7 G | D Em | C G | D | (chorus)||Em Cmaj7 | D Bm | Em Cmaj7 | D Dsus4 | (verse)|
|LA LA LA||125||F#m | C#m7 | D | D | F#m | C#m7 | Bm | Bm C#m |||(Final C#m sometimes omitted)|
|ROAR||90||Bb | Bb / / (Cm) | Gm | Gm Eb |||As chorus loop|
|THRIFT SHOP||95||G#m | B | C# | D# F# | (implied)||G#m only or no chords in rap sections|
|JUST GIVE ME A REASON||95||G | D/F# | Em | Bm D7 | (chorus)||G | C Em | C | G | (verse)||Em A/C# | D (G) | x3 (pre-chorus)|
|COUNTING STARS||122||C#m | E | B | A |||As chorus loop||A | A | A | A ||
|MIRRORS||77||Eb Bb | Ab | Eb Bb | Ab | Eb Bb | Fm Cm | Eb Bb | Ab / / (G) |||Cm Gm | Fm / Ab (G/B) | (verse)||Fm | Cm | Fm | Cm Bb | Fm | Cm | Ab | Ab ||
Here is the list sorted by length of vocal intro (mean average intro is 14s):
|WAKE ME UP||09s|
|LET HER GO||26s|
|LA LA LA||15s|
|JUST GIVE ME A REASON||10s|
- There are slightly fewer 4-chord loop songs than the equivalent 2012 analysis.
- 4 songs have the same chord loop throughout the verse and chorus.
- All the songs are in 4/4.
- 7 of the songs have a ‘straight’ (8 or 16) groove; 3 of the songs have a ‘swing’ 16 groove (where every other 16th note is shorter) – this applies to La La La, Roar and Thrift Shop.
- The mean average tempo is 104BPM. A lot slower than last year’s 124BPM, and lower than the 60-year mean average of UK/US pop (about 120BPM).
- Some are perhaps unlikely hits. Thrift Shop is arguably a novelty song with its unusual lyric theme. Let Her Go and Just Give Me A Reason use rather traditional song forms because they contain less looping material, although both include moments where chord loops are implied.
- 8 songs have a love/sex/relationships theme. The other two themes are ‘confidence’ and ‘fashion’ (Roar and Thrift Shop respectively).
- The long intro song is back, but so is the no-intro song. Let Her Go, Mirrors and Get Lucky all have intros longer than 20s, although Get Lucky’s 31s intro is understandable given the way it sets up a dance groove as part of its Chic-disco sonic allusion. Thrift Shop and Counting Stars both start with a vocal – that is, they have no intro.
The main conclusion is that this is a pleasingly eclectic group – there are common musical characteristics. but a fair bit of genre variation, and songwriters are occasionally pushing some of the parameters of mainstream pop formulas. However, there is a notable absence of bands – everyone in this list is a solo artist, demonstrating perhaps that, for the singles market at least, A&R is risk-averse at the moment.