This is long over-due, my TANBRines. I'm going to wait a few days and catch up on sports before putting an albums list up here.
I'm looking over this list and marveling at how straightforward it is. Not really in that it's all accessible, since only a select number of people are acquainted with Guillemots, but in that all these tracks are clearly singles. You won't find any eight-minute electronic symphonies or, save one or two of these, anything that would sound out of place on the radio. I don't know if this switch to more immediately pleasing and rewarding music is anything to be upset about, but it does interest me. Part of it is that I worked for a radio station for the first half of the year (KNWD, "the only station that matters") and most of my listening was geared directly around whether or not something would sound good over the airwaves. But I'm worried that another part of it is that I'm getting old. This list is also a great opportunity to see how much of a pussy I am. While I mostly write about cocaine-peddling, bundle-stacking gangsters, my iTunes is often more twee than trill. At any rate, here's the list.
(Oh yeah, just a little further adieu. I didn't feel like hosting mp3s for all of these songs, so I've linked to the video for each of them whenever possible. If I had a remix or mash-up laying around that I thought you might like, I included that at the bottom of the song's write-up as well.)
Taking Back Sunday- "MakeDamnSure"
I just finished reading Andy Greenwald's tepid Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, and his thesis is basically that the cornerstone of the punk and, by extension emo, movement is the community fostered by the music. Though the music is a uniting force, it's more significant that all those like-minded people are together to hear it int he first place. (He goes on to argue that the Internet has become more important than either in stratifying and re-defining that part of culture.)
That being said, this still sounds like something I would have loved in high school. It's hopeless. It's quiet and loud in all the right places with a dual-singer blood-curdling catharsis halfway through. The difference is that I'm not in high school anymore, and the elements of emo I valued then are different from the ones I value now. Along with My Chemical Romance's "Welcome to the Black Parade," which could have just as easily made this list, "MakeDamnSure" succeeds by ratcheting an intimate experience with just enough of an epic approach to fake it for grown-ups. So look, Greenwald, just because I heard this on the Internet doesn't mean it applies to your case of young people replacing the punk camaraderie and its musical unity with the inter-connectedness of the global village. I mean, no one even knew I liked this song. Until I wrote about it on my blog...
Jo Jo- "Too Little, Too Late"
That gorgeous chorus, with the gallop of that double-time backbeat clearly outdistancing Joanna Levesque, is what sold me. What took me over the top was that superflous but hearty "woo" she throws in as her multi-tracked self cascades into its final go-around before the fade-out. So about that earlier comment? Yeah, I'm getting old.
Cam'ron- "Weekend Girl" [mixtapes]
High atop the Dipset HQ (read: a Harlem Dunkin' Donuts), Killa Cam and Hell Rell have the following convo:
Cam: You know we goin' in the studio on Monday to do Bad Boy Fourteen with DJ Envy, right?
Rell: Shit's on my Blackberry, nigga. You don't have to remind my ass. No homo.
Cam: I got somethin' special planned.
Rell: Oh shit, dun! You gonna go in and kill 'em with that 'peach cobbler Benz' shit? That 'closet's pet cemetary' shit? I can go in and scream 'Mister Ruger Ruger' over it.
Cam: Look, lesson one. It's all about the bloggers. You can make an album that ain't all that good. You can do a hundred mixtapes with all but one or two songs bein' different. But every once in a while, you gotta throw them niggas a bone. Cheesy eighties sample. Not making sense just to keep the twisty internal rhyme. Let down your guard for a bit, you feel me? Most important thing is to make it sound like I don't give a shit, even though I been working on this all week.
Rell: What's lesson two?
Cam: Lesson two's that I like the bear claws. What's this jelly shit? This ain't no bank robbery! Go bring this back. Matter of fact, get me the holes, nigga. The Munchkins or whatever. No homo.
Cam'ron- "Weekend Girl" (mp3)
The Hold Steady- "Chips Ahoy!"
The Hold Steady kind of remind me of Ellen Pompeo. They're not underweight actresses who squint a lot and flounder over narration that undermines the subtlety of their show. What I mean is that on one hand any halfway accomplished band could perform their songs adequately. What separates them is the amoral storytelling of Craig Finn and the way he drawls, "Some nights the painkllers make the pain even worse" as the organ jumps around the insistent crunch of the guitar. Little things you don't notice at first. What I mean is that they're an approachable hot.
TV on the Radio- "Wolf Like Me"
TV on the Radio is so good I'm beginning to get bored with them. I only sort of know what that means.
Shareefa feat. Ludacris- "I Need a Boss"
Shareefa sucks. When the first two lines of your career unimaginatively rhyme the same word, when even the way your producer structurees the track belies his belief that your verses are time killers, you know we probably won't hear from you again. What's important here is the perfection of almost everything else. Rodney Jerkins isn't the first to stutter a hook, but he might be the most effective. Jerkins overlays the weed carriette's vocals with a synth flutter and tumbling drumfill and, most importantly, rubs you down for two frustrating verses before enlisting Ludacris for the happy ending. If the whole song had been him hocking conflagration like, "Now to infinity/grown women be feelin' me/and they ain't got nothin' to lose but they virginity/still the Lovah Lovah/so gimme a couple rubbers/I'll get 'em in a room and Luda'll make 'em stutter like..." he wouldn't be writing Shareefa off on his taxes, and my store wouldn't be recalling forty-something copies of Point of No Return.
Clipse- "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)"
I already told you how good this is and if you didn't believe me then, there's no way I can trick you into listening to it now. Why this is not all over the radio, besides the fact that they're obviously trying to get it all over the radio, baffles me.
Camera Obscura- "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken"
Three lines. That's the most Camera Obscura gives you to catch your breath between their careening choruses. Something I love about this song is that there are a lot of strings, but they're never over-bearing. They're not an afterthought, but they also weren't put in with any kind of pre-conceived affect of making the song sound more grand. They matter no more or less than any of the other instruments that glisten across this song like a dripping candy apple. Don't get me wrong, I liked The Life Pursuit just enough to not be pissed about it, but this is the nonchalantly rollicking record Belle and Sebastian were supposed to have paced this year.
Ne-Yo- "So Sick"
Not every typical R&B song prominently features a harp, but almost no typical R&B songs have the type of novelistic detail that "So Sick" does. Guy hears a love song on the radio, the song reminds him of the scorned lover who has left him and all the things they shared that they no longer will. This song could go wrong in a lot of places, but Ne-Yo never forces a lyric, never over-extends his voice, and even writes a breakdown in the middle that's special sauce on the rest of this BK Stacker of soul (writing this is really difficult, okay?). I didn't know one song could make you a superstar anymore, but apparently it can--and rightfully so.
Ne-Yo- "So Sick (DFA Remix)" (mp3)
Guillemots- "Trains to Brazil"
I don't think there are better ways to begin a song than with ambient street noises and Bono-esque "ahhhhs" leading up to a first line with the possibilities of "It's one o'clock on a Friday morning." Oh, wait, singing "Friday" as if it was "ef-Friday." From there, the momentum only builds and flowers. If Guillemots were in a Royal Rumble of bands with terrible names, they would camel-clutch Hoobastank and Kajagoogoo six ways from ef-Friday.
Hot Chip- "Over and Over"
The chimes in the intro vaulted "Over and Over" into consideration for the top twenty-five. Then, the double slam of the snare for almost no reason halfway through verse one planted it into the list. From there, exemplifying the joy of repetition with a "monkey with a miniature cymbal" put it ahead of Clipse. When they spell out nonsense instead of adding a real verse, it moved them ahead of Camera Obscura, and finally past Ne-Yo, since liking Hot Chip is probably cooler than liking Ne-Yo and I'm secretly (or not) conscious of all this. But then again, so is Hot Chip. Finally, the ironic (or not) face-melter of a guitar solo solidified "Over and Over" as my fourteenth best single of the year. Then I figured it would be cooler to have two Lily Allen songs in a row and I settled for number fifteen.
Lily Allen- "Smile"
Lily Allen- "LDN"
The best types of reggae songs are ones that aren't really reggae songs, and the best way to get to my heart is with a potty mouth and a pop masterpiece. Of these two, "LDN" is more technically impressive with Lily cycling through about four different melodies and three different genres with no extraneous transitions. All year, I've been looking for jaunty, subversive songs like this for a party playlist, and it's just my luck that two perfect ones are by the same artist, which definitely breaks a rule. That, and I'd always want to quote that "I believe that it's called al fresco" line.
Birdman and Lil' Wayne- "Stuntin' Like My Daddy"
1996: The Cash Money Empire is riding an unprecedented string of top ten hits with its stable of average New Orleans rappers, bringing with it glossy anthems of wealth and frivolity. Its in-house producer Mannie Fresh crafts skittery skittles of handclaps and scissors while spinning the best drumfills ever. In the history of music.
2006: Most people responsible for Cash Money's success, from B.G. to Juvenile to the guy in Baller Blockin' who yells, "Maybe he should wipe his face!" are gone. The only Millionaires worth a damn are semi-charismatic but mostly ugly impresario Birdman and Weezy F. Baby, the man-child he creepily refers to as his son. Basically, their salad days are American Pie and the present day is American Pie's Naked Mile. Ha, salad days. No homo.
The label needs a hit to keep itself afloat, so the boys decide to travel back in time to steal one of their 1996 beats. After failing with a DeLorean and a telephone booth, they find the Plymouth Prowler from the "I Need a Hot Girl" video and take it to 80 MPH, which sets them on an excellent adventure in time travel. As they're warping space with the Prowler (fueled by the garbage of old Turk albums), Wayne teaches Baby how to rap, which he's been meaning to do for years. They accomplished their mission in record time and we were none the wiser. If I have a complaint, it's that the hook is a bit less towel-wavingly powerful than it should have been, but come on. What do you expect?
Killer Mike- "That's Life" [mixtapes]
When a critic writes that someone "takes no prisoners," it comes off as a cliche. But Killer Mike is so relentless in his stone throws at hypocrisy that his voice cracks, and no other phrase is as apt as that one. Killer Mike is sick of your bullshit, and he has the noblesse oblige to sample Frank Sinatra. For once, it's not how you say it, but what you say. I dare you to finish this song and not be speechless.
Killer Mike- "That's Life" (mp3)
Cat Power- "The Greatest"
This paragraph is kind of fragmentary: All of Cat Power's songs sound the same, but the ones on The Greatest are multitudes more emotionally mature and natural than her previous work. This is an album about drinking away regret and feeling alone, but it's about all the feelings in between as well. Chan Marshall's voice on "The Greatest" sounds as if she sang something, then ate the words as they disappeared into the air, then sang them again. At first, I hated that "The Greatest" ended so abruptly, but now I realize that's the way it has to be. Also--side note--I might be alone here, but I've spent years trying to figure out whether or not I find Marshall attractive, and I honestly couldn't tell you one way or the other. That's almost more interesting than being pretty.
Lupe Fiasco- "Kick Push"
First off, I'm a big fan of songs that provide the listener with instructions for simple, mechanical movements--"Machinehead" by Bush? That was my jam. Beyond that, the strings Soundtrakk crate-dug for this are some of the lushest ever found on a hip-hop record, and they roll out a rainbow carpet for Lupe to introduce himself to the world. He does so with an obvious love for language, replicating the sound of his speaker's voice when "for a week he had to talk with a lisp like thisssss," using onomatopoeia to illustrate grinds, shortening libraries to li-bees. He even has enough gravitas to make that second verse with the dialogue work. To remind you, it looks like this written out:
Boy: "I would marry you, but I'm engaged to these aerials and varials. And I don't think this board is strong enough to carry two."
Girl: "Bow--I weigh a hundred and twenty pounds. Now let me make one thing clear: I don't need to ride yours; I've got mine right here. I don't normally take dates in here."
Security: "I'm sorry. There's no skating here."
But it makes complete sense the way he delivers it. You don't even think twice. Plus, come on, this is a song about skateboarding that was on black radio. And he didn't even need a goofy dance for it.
The Pipettes- "Pull Shapes"
Besides being a paragon of classic pop song structure, "Pull Shapes" is unabashedly fun and catchy. I don't know if there's such a thing as aggressive innocence, because at a certain point that force behind the innocence seems too contrived and thus not innocent anymore. But if there is such a thing, The Pipettes can copyright it. In under three minutes, these three girls jam in enough hokey-pokey call and response tricks to satisfy any listener--even the ones who don't like hokey-pokey call and response tricks. I'm not exaggerating when I write that if you put this song and its feverish strings on a Phil Spector compilation, no one would know the difference.
The Killers- "When You Were Young"
I work at a record store, and I usually bust six or seven hour shifts, which means that each CD in the five-pace carousel repeats about three times per day. "When You Were Young" was popular enough for the company that owns me to keep on one of their compilations for three months. This means that I heard the song about 180 times, not counting whenever it was on the radio or TV or when I chose to play the song myself. And you know what? I kind of feel listening to it right now. I'm still not tired of the gentle sweep of the keyboard line during the breaking point of those lyrics that mean nothing and everything. I'm still not tired of the rest before the main riff winds up or the unsung heroism of Mark Stoermer's neck-exploring bass. Believe it or not, I wish it could go back on one of those CDs because it would save me from another listen of Heartland or Trace Adkins.
The Killers- "When You Were Young (Jacque LuCont Thin White Duke Mix)" (mp3)
DJ Khaled feat. Lil' Wayne, Rick Ross, Paul Wall, Pitbull, Fat Joe- "Holla at Me" [mixtapes]
DJ Khaled and Cool and Dre might not get gold stars for producing here, since this beat is pretty much a direct interpolation of Afrika Bambaataa's "Looking for the Perfect Beat," (If I don't mention that They take away my rap blogger card.) but they've got one hell of a Rolodex. Khaled corraled the right rappers saying the right things in the right order, and he's got Paul Wall on one banger of a chorus that brings just enough order to a song that's gleefully spontaneous.
Peter Bjorn & John- "Young Folks"
On most of Writer's Block, PB&J keep things simple: three guys playing indie rock on standard instruments over laconic vocals. The rest of the album's great, too, but that contrast makes the casual brilliance of "Young Folks" all the more over-whelming.
Since the video for the song features a party, I'm loath to compare the song to one, but here goes: I threw a party for my own birthday last year and was worried that no one would show. Way past the standard fashionably late time, I was still standing next to a keg in the cold with the handful of people I could count on to show up. Until, all of a sudden, a poo-ton of people arrived at the same time and jacked the party up to certified "get-hype" levels. In "Young Folks," when the whistling gives way to Peter Moren and Victoria Bergsman's rhyme-swapping it's sort of like the fight I had to break up (a highlight), and when the bongos and guitar assert themselves on the long-overdue chorus, it's kind of like moving the party inside at the insistence of the cops (another highlight). When the song ends, it's like realizing somebody stole a fifth of Maker's Mark from my freezer or "Don't Stop Believin'" repeating on my playlist (less cool). At any rate, drums, maracas, bass, female- and male-singing, bongos, and guitar just keep rolling into this piece, and some of them even brought snacks.
Gnarls Barkley- "Crazy"
This is one of the weirdest number one singles ever, from one of the weirdest platinum-selling albums ever. While Gnarls Barkley debates the need for imbalance in an artist's psyche and his own undocumented insanity, Danger Mouse loops a marching kickdrum over an Ennio Morricone sample of all things. And taking a page from the king of western scores is the key to understanding this song. The Lone Ranger didn't think it was weird to hang out with Tonto so much, the Man with No Name doesn't think it's weird to pit warring families against one another. And Gnarls Barkley doesn't think it's weird for this song to be so damned effective. They're so crazy they're not crazy?
Arty Fufkin- "Crazy Logic (Gnarls Barkley mash-up)" (mp3)
Justin Timberlake feat. T.I.- "My Love"
There's an apocryphal story in which Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were admiring each other's work. Dylan asked how long it took to write "Hallelujah," to which Cohen confessed three years. In return, Cohen copped to liking "I and I." When asked how long it took to write, Dylan responded, "Fifteen minutes."
Though both processes produced undeniably fruitful work, Dylan comes out on top in that story. He seems like a genius to which songwriting came naturally. It's not enough to be great; Americans like a man who can be great without trying. This is why Jay-Z brags about never writing down lyrics, though his rhymes might be more complex and meaningful if he did. It's why Peyton Manning is praised for reading defenses and changing plays on the fly, though sometimes his offensive coordinator had planned something better. It's why everyone and his mama read and wanted to believe Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.
Case in point: Justin Timberlake, after selling millions of copies of his debut solo album and scoring crucial street cred, took three years off to play golf and make movies. When he decided to come back, stories abounded about him recording harmonies in one take and improvising all the lyrics. Casually, he had learned how to play guitar. I mean, JC now calls him a jedi. What I'm getting at is that what makes Timberlake great is that he has elements of Cohen and Dylan. (Jesus, the fact that I'm writing that six years after this should tell you something about the boy's growth. [Note to self: cancel cornrow appointment.]) Because while he might have impressed Timbo with his single takes, no one was with him when he was on that golf course. Something had to have happened during that time off. Maybe the triple approximate rhyme of "I can see us holding hands/walking on the beach our toes in the sand" is the three years, and the lazy "I can see us on the country-side/sittin' on the grass laying side by side" is the fifteen minutes. That's why "My Love" has qualities of both painstakingly layered detail and unhinged, inspired spontaneity.
Timbaland? I won't even try to explain why he's the best.
Justin Timberlake- "My Love (Diplo Remix)" (mp3)
Band of Horses- "The Funeral"
If Built to Spill had moved to Kentucky and covered "Do You Realize??" or "Solsbury Hill," it might approach the poignant downstrokes of this song. "The Funeral" sounds like the experience of being human.
T.I.- "What You Know"
Rap is a difficult field to succeed in because it's a world that laughs at justice, literally and figuratively. There are rappers who are technically perfect, who could perform moving, uplifting, complex songs their audience desperately needs, but will remain unsigned. At the same time, there are millionaires who exploit the passions of youth and do so with only a modicum of style and ability. T.I. is neither the former nor the latter--not exactly--but he exemplifies the two elements that navigate the chasm separating those camps: who you know and how your voice sounds. Producers such as Mannie Fresh, Just Blaze and, in the case of "What You Know," DJ Toomp craft their best beats for T.I., and he raps over them with a unique, clenched-teeth drawl. In fact, it's easier to count the number of words he pronounces correctly than the ones he slurs. One of the basic tenets of linguistics is that words are naturally augmented to the shortest decipherable versions of themselves. In this way, T.I. sounds like the future.
All that being said, you could never really call him a lyricist. Though not everyone has to be quotable, his style was built upon delivery and attitude, not wordplay or structure or content. That is, until "What You Know," in which he sighed, "I got a ki by the three/when I chirp, shorty chirp back/Louie knapsack/where I haul in all the work at" and a new chapter in his career was scripted.
Plus, the chorus' power was enhanced because the art of writing a hook is an endangered species. In a year when you can make a blip on the radar of our minstrel show of a culture by repeating the name of an appetizer over and over again, T.I. not only blessed us with the most infectious chorus of his young career, he did it over the most majestic, colossal beat of the year.
And the song after it on King is even better.
T.I.- "What You Know (Ross Hog Hard Times Remix)" (mp3)