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John Mellencamp Essentials: 12 Tracks That Show Why This Small-Town Troubadour Is A Big-Time Songwriter
John Mellencamp performs during Farm Aid in Raleigh, North Carolina

Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images

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John Mellencamp Essentials: 12 Tracks That Show Why This Small-Town Troubadour Is A Big-Time Songwriter

To cap John Mellencamp's busy year — which included a biography, a new record, an exhibit at the New York Academy of Art, a deluxe reissue of 'Scarecrow' and a new exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — GRAMMY.com revisits 12 of his standout songs.

GRAMMYs/Nov 11, 2022 - 04:06 pm

Renaissance man. Curmudgeon. A hard-nosed blue-collar worker who knows how to pen catchy choruses, John Mellencamp can also delve deeper — making social commentary amidst and alongside chart-topping sing-alongs. The GRAMMY-winning, Songwriters Hall of Famer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, painter, father, and humanitarian, needs no introduction.

Despite worldwide success, this Midwestern boy — forever an advocate for the downtrodden — never abandoned his roots. As the opening stanza from one of his most beloved songs decrees: "I was born in a small town/And I live in a small town/ Probably die in a small town/ Oh, those small communities."

The numbers alone illustrate Mellencamp’s mastery: 67 singles and 22 Top 40 hits, including 11 in the Top 10. In the U.S. alone, the songwriter has sold more than 30 million albums and boasts more than 4.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Mellencamp’s storied career spans more than four and a half decades and shows no signs of slowing. The 71-year-old is hitting the road in February 2023 for a 76-date North American theater tour that kicks off with a pair of home state dates in Bloomington, Indiana. A new record (Orpheus Descending) is also coming next year. In honor of John Mellencamp's storied — and very much continuing — legacy, GRAMMY.com combed his catalog to highlight 12 essential tracks.

"Jack & Diane" (1982)

Forty years on, this "little ditty" from Mellencamp’s commercial breakthrough, American Fool, still hits. The one that started it all for this restless outsider — and cantankerous kid from Seymour, Indiana — is a wistful ballad. This nostalgic nod pays homage to those carefree days that slip by in the wink of an eye: growing up, and teenage love found and lost.

The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the Recording Industry Association of America later included it on its 365 Songs of the Century list. Try not to sing along to its catchy chorus: "Oh yeah, life goes on/ long after the thrill of living is gone." 

"Pink Houses" (1983)

Taken from the raucous and raw 1983 album Uh-HUH!, many misinterpreted "Pink Houses" as a patriotic anthem that applauded the "home of the free."

In reality, the song speaks of the "winners" and "losers" and the failure of the American dream. The enduring song also reveals Mellencamp’s depth as a songwriter.

Mellencamp’s muse — part fact and part fiction — arrived while driving home one day along Interstate 65 in Indiana. The image of a Black man sitting alone in his front yard staring at the road struck him. The result: an enduring song, which is usually the final encore, that comments on racism and classism via sarcasm with this simple three-word chorus: "Ain’t that America."

"Rain on the Scarecrow" (1985)

As Ronald Reagan began his second term in the White House in the early '80s, the farm crisis lingered. Families lost their homesteads and foreclosures piled up. In America’s heartland, these property auctions often turned violent. For Mellencamp, who had been raised in a farming community, that was more than enough to inspire this politically-charged song.

While not one of the album's hits, Scarecrow’s leadoff track is its  most profound. "Rain on the Scarecrow" opens with deafening drums and electric guitars, setting the tone. Mellencamp’s gravelly and urgent vocals then arrive: "Scarecrow on a wooden cross blackbird in the barn / Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm."

The song naturally became a rallying cry for the plight of family farmers. The same year Scarecrow was released, Mellencamp founded Farm Aid, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young

"Small Town" (1985)

Another Scarecrow cut, this Mellencamp composition peaked at No.6 on the Billboard charts and remains a fan favorite. Born in Seymour, Indiana (population 21,489), the songwriter has lived most of his adult life not far from the rural community where he was raised. Unlike many stars, the rock ‘n’ roller never sought the bright lights of the big city. This song is an ode to all those small towners, like Mellencamp, who never stray far from their roots or forget where they come from.

"Paper in Fire" (1987)

The album opener from The Lonesome Jubilee is a hard-hitting number that once again sees Mellencamp return to a common theme: the haves and have-nots. The song hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

To illustrate this economic disparity, the accompanying video was shot in the poorest, most underserved Black neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia. Mellencamp invited all of this area’s residents to join in the shoot and revel in the streets of this shantytown in the midst of the rest of the cities’ gentrification. The addition of violin and accordion to the final mix signaled a change in instrumentation for the songwriter that gives the song a rootsier, country-leaning vibe.

"Pop Singer" (1989)

Like many artists before — and since — Mellencamp never liked the fame, fortune and fake hero worship that often comes with artistic success. The song from Big Daddy is a satirical look at the music industry’s fabricated stars — those one-hit wonders and fame-at-all-cost seekers whose looks and image are more important than talent. The song’s video shows Mellencamp wearing clown-like make-up, adding to the underlying message of what record company executives feel matters most in the pop-star economy — looks — and the perils of idolatry.

"Love & Happiness" (1991)

Despite reaching the Top 20 and going Platinum, Whenever We Wanted got lost in the zeitgeist — i.e. the rise of grunge with Pearl Jam’s debut Ten and Nirvana’s sophomore smash Nevermind, both released that same year. Yet Whenever's lead track, "Love & Happiness," is a Mellencamp masterpiece.

Penned in the wake of George H. W. Bush launching Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the song opens with a 30-second instrumental marked by Kenny Aronoff’s drum assault. The lyrics waste no time picking up this melodic mood — letting the listener know this is no love song. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek sermon that unleashes Mellencamp’s ire at the rhetoric coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "Well we’re dropping our bombs/ In the southern hemisphere/ And people are starving/ That live right here." 

"Human Wheels" (1993)

While not the No. 1 single from Mellencamp’s 12th record (that was "What if I Came Knocking,") Human Wheels’ title track is the one that lingers the longest. The album and song features the production of GRAMMY-winner Malcolm Burn, while the lyrics are a reworking of a eulogy Mellencamp’s good friend and songwriter George Green delivered at his grandfather’s funeral. With its haunting rhythms and poetic lines like "this land, today, my tears shall taste/And take into its dark embrace," the song also acts as a tribute to John Cascella, the band’s long-time keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist, who died suddenly of a heart attack during a break in the Human Wheels’ sessions.

"I’m Not Running Anymore" (1998)

In 1998 Mellencamp took a long look in the mirror and wondered where that good-looking young kid went. "I'm Not Running Anymore," with its bouncy rhythms and dance beat, reflects the songwriter’s state of mind at the end of the 1990s. Dane Clark delivers explosive percussion on this track, filling in for long-time Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff.

This song — and the self-titled album it is from — marks new beginnings. John Mellencamp was the first album released on Columbia Records after 22 years with Phonogram.

"Our Country" (2007)

Critics called Mellencamp a sell-out upon this song’s release. The reason: the songwriter gave this patriotic composition to Chevrolet to help them launch its newest pickup truck, the Silverado.

While the songwriter knew how to play the game, (much like Bob Seeger, whose "Like a Rock" was also used in a Chevrolet ad back in 1991), Mellencamp was not immune to the inherent hypocrisies that existed in having one of his compositions help sell a product. Yet the song helped Freedom’s Road have his  highest Billboard debut (No.5). 

This song is more country leaning than the artist's previous output, but still rocks. This fact is not surprising since Little Big Town provides backing vocals on eight of the album’s 10 tracks. With honest lyricism, this song reflected Mellencamp’s spirit and newfound hope that there is room for everyone in the U.S. of A. singing in a smoky, road weary voice: "from the East Coast to the West Coast and the Dixie Highway back home … this is our country." 

"Longest Days" (2008)

A lovely folk-rock lullaby from the T-Bone Burnett produced Life, Death, Love and Freedom, "Longest Days" ruminates on life and death and time’s non-stop ticking. A troubled troubadour, approaching 60, Mellencamp peers in the rearview, sees the lines on his face deeper than the white lines on the Interstate and ponders existentially on what it all means.

This soulful, stripped down acoustic number with poetic lines like these in the chorus, "Sometimes you get sick and you don't get better / That's when life is short even in its longest days," shows a singer-songwriter, who long after he is gone, deserves to stand alongside the greats of the American songbook: Guthrie, Dylan, Prine and Springsteen.

"Wasted Days" (2022)

The first single teased in the fall of 2021 from Mellencamp’s critically-acclaimed 2022 release Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, "Wasted Days" is an unadorned duet with Bruce Springsteen that packs a punch. The song finds two masters of their craft, singing together for the first time.

The message is direct and not deep: the years are short and the days are long, so spend your time with people who fulfill you and follow your passions. The video features the aging rockers, sitting at a kitchen table, playing their acoustic guitars. Just a pair of weathered journeymen and chroniclers of the days of our lives taking stock of their mortality and asking simple questions like "who on earth is worth our time?" 

Bruce Springsteen Essentials: 15 Tracks That Show Why The Boss Is A Poetic Rock Icon

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Aloe Blacc, Melissa Etheridge, Wille Nelson Rock GRAMMY Foundation Legacy Concert

View Twitter and Instagram posts, video, photos and a complete set list from Lean On Me: A Celebration Of Music And Philanthropy

GRAMMYs/Feb 7, 2015 - 05:40 am

GRAMMY winners Melissa Etheridge, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson were among the performers at Lean On Me: A Celebration Of Music And Philanthropy, the 17th Annual GRAMMY Foundation Legacy Concert. The sold-out event took place Feb. 5 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles and also featured performances by current GRAMMY nominee Aloe Blacc, singer/songwriter Rozzi Crane, violinist Lindsey Stirling, GRAMMY-nominated artist Robin Thicke, and indie pop/rock band Walk The Moon.

Below are highlights from the event shared via Twitter and Instagram, video recap, and a complete set list of songs performed.

Robin before the Legacy Concert tonight. #robinthicke #grammys #legacyconcert

A photo posted by Robin Thicke Fan (@gostupid4thicke) on

Aloe Blacc and Melissa Etheridge duet on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" #LegacyConcert

A photo posted by GRAMMY Foundation (@grammyfdn) on

Set List:

Rozzi Crane
"Get Together"
"Ooh Child"

Aloe Blacc
"We Shall Overcome" (Pete Seeger cover)
"Love Is The Answer"

John Mellencamp
"Longest Days"

Willie Nelson
"On The Road Again"
"We Don't Run"

Melissa Etheridge And Aloe Blacc
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (Beatles cover)

Walk The Moon And Deborah Cox
"All These Things That I've Done"
"Heroes"
"Gimme Shelter" (Rolling Stones cover)

Lindsey Stirling
"Do They Know It's Christmas?" (Band Aid cover)
"We Are The World" (USA For Africa cover)

Plain White T's
"True Colors" (Cyndi Lauper cover)

Robin Thicke
"Fragile"
"Higher Ground" with Erica Campbell (Stevie Wonder cover)

Melissa Etheridge
"I Need To Wake Up"
"Lean On Me" (Bill Withers cover)

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Let Freedom Ring With The March On Washington GRAMMY Playlist

Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington with a song

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and declared in his landmark "I Have A Dream" speech, "Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood."

In 2012 The Recording Academy recognized King's speech for its historical significance by inducting the recording into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. Delivered before 250,000 people, "I Have A Dream" culminated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a rally organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations that called for the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation and a program to provide jobs, among other demands.

Several artists have used music to call for a solid rock of brotherhood and sisterly love over the years. GRAMMY winners Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul & Mary; and Mahalia Jackson were among the performers who stood beside King at the March on Washington and dared to dream of a better America. On Aug. 28 President Barack Obama — joined by fellow GRAMMY winners such as LeAnn Rimes and BeBe Winans and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — will deliver his own speech at the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action bell-ringing ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

As bells toll throughout the country, we encourage you to let freedom ring by marching to the beat of our March on Washington 50th anniversary GRAMMY playlist.

"Blowin' In The Wind"
Peter, Paul & Mary, Best Performance By A Vocal Group, Best Folk Recording, 1963; GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2003

Peter, Paul & Mary's cover of Bob Dylan's popular protest song was one of two songs performed by the trio at the March on Washington. The two-time GRAMMY-winning track fittingly asked marchers, "How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?" The answer, of course, was blowin' in the wind.

"A Change Is Gonna Come"
Sam Cooke, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2000

Considered one of the defining anthems of the civil rights movement, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released in 1964 by R&B singer Cooke as a response to Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind." Cooke's harrowing track was voted No. 12 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list and epitomizes the hope and change King called for 50 years ago.                   

"Ohio"
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2009

Although written by Canadian Neil Young, "Ohio" spoke to the outrage many felt over the Kent State shootings in Kent, Ohio, in 1970. The song openly questioned the deaths of four unarmed students who were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a campus Vietnam War protest.   

"Get Up, Stand Up"
Bob Marley & The Wailers, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 1999

Written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, this classic reggae tune was featured on the Wailers' 1973 album Burnin'. The group's signature call to action demanded people "get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights." In 1999 the track was the first reggae song to be inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.

"Born In The U.S.A."
Bruce Springsteen, Record Of The Year nominee, 1985

Though often misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, "Born In The U.S.A." actually speaks to the desperate flip side of the American dream encountered by some Vietnam War veterans. Still, the album of the same name garnered a GRAMMY nomination for Album Of The Year, spawned no less than seven Top 10 hits and was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2012.

"Fight The Power"
Public Enemy, Best Rap Performance nominee, 1989  

It might take a nation of millions to hold back listeners of Public Enemy's confrontational and controversial hit "Fight The Power." Chosen by director Spike Lee as the musical theme for his 1989 film Do The Right Thing, the track calls out everyone from Elvis to the American government, imploring people to "fight the powers that be."                         

"Guerrilla Radio"
Rage Against The Machine, Best Hard Rock Performance, 2000

Featured on Rage Against The Machine's 1999 GRAMMY-nominated album The Battle Of Los Angeles, "Guerrilla Radio" is the band's call to cut off the lights, turn up the radio and tune out those they describe as "vultures who thirst for blood and oil."

"Revolution 1"
The Beatles, The Beatles, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2000

A year before John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously held a two-week bed-in for peace in 1969, the Beatles released this Lennon/McCartney penned tune featured on The Beatles ("The White Album"). The song spoke to Lennon's skepticism about some of the radical tactics used to protest the Vietnam War, offering the tongue-in-cheek guarantee that everything was "gonna be alright."

"War"
Edwin Starr, Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male nominee, 1970

Written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield in protest of the Vietnam War, "War" was originally recorded by the Temptations. Starr's version of this classic track helped him achieve legendary status on the soul circuit. His cover was intense and direct, simply stating: "I said, war, good gawd ya'll/What is it good for?/Absolutely nothing!"  

"The Times They Are A-Changin'"      
Bob Dylan, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2013

After the release of "Blowin' In The Wind," Dylan provided another anthemic protest song with "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Since its release in 1964, the song has been covered by artists such as the Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and Nina Simone, among others, during both challenging and ever-changing times.

"What The World Needs Now Is Love"
Jackie DeShannon, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, inducted 2008

After all the protests, marches and calls for change have quieted down, arguably no song should be cranked up as loud as DeShannon's 1965 hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love." Per DeShannon: All we need "is love, sweet love/No, not just for some, but for everyone."

Know a song that changed the world? Let us know in the comments.

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FYI/TMI: Stars Come Together For Hurricane Sandy, Justin Bieber Breaks The Law

Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney among performers for Sandy benefit; Bieber gets ticketed in L.A.

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(In an effort to keep you fully informed, and fully entertained, below we present today's FYI and TMI — news you need and news that's, well, sometimes needless….)

FYI …

More Stars Come Together For Hurricane Sandy
GRAMMY winners Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Kanye West, and legendary rockers Roger Waters and the Who will perform at a benefit concert for Hurricane Sandy on Dec. 12 in New York. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Robin Hood Relief Fund to aid hurricane victims.

SoundExchange Reports 3Q Royalty Payments
Performance rights organization SoundExchange distributed $122.5 million in royalty payments during the third quarter of 2012, marking the organization's largest quarterly payout since its founding in 2000, according to Billboard.biz. SoundExchange has distributed $326.9 million in performance royalties for the year to date, bringing the organization's grand payout total to $1.2 billion since 2000.

TMI …

Bieber Breaks The Law
As if Justin Bieber's recent trouble in love wasn't hard enough for the 18-year-old, the teen pop sensation has now run into some trouble with law enforcement. Bieber was ticketed by Los Angeles police on Nov. 13 after he was pulled over in his Ferrari in West Hollywood, Calif., for making an unsafe left turn. On top of that, cops found his registration was expired. Hopefully now there's one less unsafe driver on the road.

 

 

The Week In Music: Prince Is Down In The Digital Dumps
Prince

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.com

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The Week In Music: Prince Is Down In The Digital Dumps

Artist refuses to record until the piracy battle is won

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

It's been almost a year since Prince formally declared the Internet to be "completely over," and now the artist formerly known as a symbol is back on his Web-hating soap box. "I personally can't stand digital music," said Prince in an interview with the Guardian. "You're getting sound in bits. It affects a different place in your brain. When you play it back, you can't feel anything. We're analog people, not digital." And the other problem with the Internet according to Prince? The lack of regulation when it comes to copyrighted content available for free on the Web. "The industry changed," continued Prince. "We made money [online] before piracy was real crazy. Nobody's making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google. It's like the gold rush out there. Or a carjacking. So I'll just hold off on recording." While we shouldn't expect a new album from the artist anytime soon, we can certainly rest assured that he'll be coming to a town near you, at least for one (or 21) nights.

With a combined 10 GRAMMY Awards, comedian Stephen Colbert and producer/musician Jack White are adding another commonality notch to their belts in the form of a musical collaboration. White and his Nashville-based Third Man Records have produced Colbert's recent single "Charlene II (I'm Over You)," the follow-up to the comedian's '80s new wave release, "Charlene (I'm Right Behind You)." Colbert, along with his backup band — female goth rock group the Black Belles — premiered the single live on June 23 on "The Colbert Report." The song is available for download at iTunes, but audiophiles can also purchase a limited-edition vinyl pressing in red, white and blue available from Third Man Records just in time for the Fourth of July holiday. But fans at iTunes are already looking ahead as one commenter wrote, "Can't wait for Charlene III (Did You Get My Last Record?)!"

Arguably one of music's biggest cult documentaries, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is celebrating its silver anniversary in 2011. Clocking in at just 17 minutes, it's a must-see for aspiring metal heads, and has received accolades from the likes of Oscar-winning writer/director Cameron Crowe, actor Ed Norton and Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl. The film captures the shirtless, beer-guzzling debauchery in the parking lot of the Capitol Centre in Landover, Md., leading up to a 1986 Judas Priest gig. It's lack of cinematography or tangible plot aside, part of the film's charm is its spontaneity. "We certainly didn't go in with an agenda or plan, and 25 years later we are still trying to make sense of Heavy Metal Parking Lot," filmmaker Jeff Krulik told NPR, and said the production cost for the film was a mere $5 for a parking fee. Have any of these headbangers cut their mullets? Find out with a look at what the alumni from Heavy Metal Parking Lot are up to in 2011. And you can relive the film in all its devil-horn glory here.

Politics and music, as they say, make strange bedfellows. They also create a lot of licensing problems. The latest rocker to issue a take-down request is Tom Petty, who will ask the Michele Bachmann presidential campaign to refrain from using his "American Girl" in any campaign-related endeavors, according to an NBC report. Musicians issuing cease-and-desists to politicians trying to co-opt popular songs or musicians into their campaigns has a long contemporary tradition. In 1984 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan invoked Bruce Springsteen during a stump speech, trying to hitch his star to Springsteen's working class fans. In 2008 John McCain apologized to Jackson Browne for using "Running On Empty." That same year California state senatorial candidate Chuck Devore had to make a similar mea culpa to Don Henley for appropriating "The Boys Of Summer" and "All She Wants To Do Is Dance." The grandfather of all political apologies to musicians came in 2010 when U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist took to YouTube to issue an official apology to David Byrne for his unauthorized use of "Road To Nowhere." As for Bachmann, maybe this would have been a better choice for her campaign stop.

After she wore a dress made completely out of raw meat to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, and arrived encased in an egg shell to the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards in February, Lady Gaga has certainly made a name for herself as a raw (no pun intended) and edgy fashionista. With the help of social media network Tumblr, Gaga has created a home for all of her fashion forays in the form of a photo blog titled Amen Fashion. So far, the Fame Monster has posted several entries that picture her showcasing a wide array of styles, from the self-dubbed "Tokyo Unicorn" to her "Born To Kill Look." And, not for the faint of heart, there's also an image of the organ featured in her "Alejandro" video with a post that reads, "He ate my heart, so I put his in the Alejandro video." Moral of the story? Don't eat Gaga's heart, but feel free to get a taste of her fashion sense.

White House party crasher Michaele Salahi made her recording debut back in March and made her live-singing debut (or at least live lip-syncing debut) last week on an NBC affiliate in Miami. Neither events made the splash she and husband Tareq made in 2009 when they crashed an official White House dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as part of a reality TV stunt. The song, "Bump It," a club-flavored dance track, is available at iTunes, where customer reviewer Klaus Von Bong commented: "Dump it."


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Pitbull's "Give Me Everything" featuring Afrojack, Ne-Yo and Nayer is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock is tops on iTunes singles chart.

Any news we've missed? Comment below.

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