02 January 2007

The other singles

Rejoice! Everybody's year-end best-of lists have graced us at last, and of course some gems were inevitably overlooked. What follows is a list of my ten favourite singles that didn't turn up on any of the following lists:

  • Cokemachineglow published an unordered list of favourite tracks unified by a quaint storyline imagining the songs as the soundtrack to a fictional holiday party attended by the site's writing staff. Cute, but the joke gets old quickly, particularly if you don't know the writers personally. Interesting bunch of tracks though, and that's what really counts.
  • Paper Thin Walls asked 31 writers to pick one track each and discuss. Predictably, theirs contained some of the oddest selections, but a few usual-suspect-types turned up as well.
  • Pitchfork made an ordered countdown, but theirs included any songs they liked, singles be damned. Album tracks, bootlegs, remixes, whatever. To incorporate this newfound embarrassment of riches, they expanded the list to 100 tracks. Killer.
  • PopMatters didn't make a singles list, but they embedded a video to accompany the blurb for 42 of the 60 selections on their best albums list; going by the logic that any song that has a video is a single, I counted those tracks as PM's singles list. Definitely the safest choices out of all the lists I've seen; they seem to aim for the oldest/least-hip audience. No shame in that, mind you, but the distinctly NPR vibe to many of their selections makes the whole thing seem a bit out of touch.
  • And of course Stylus were the only ones to do a traditional singles-only countdown. Bless them. I've got a soft spot for the classics as far as format goes, plus my tastes usually skew closest to theirs.
All in all 273 (non-unique) selections, and still the tracks below didn't make one of these lists. I stuck with singles1, criteria being any song that can be reasonably argued a single, like has a video or is available on iTunes without a parent album or whatever. No sense getting too picky here.

Incidentally, when I went back and re-read some of these I noticed a pattern of overwhelming negativity in some of these blurbs. Rest assured, this is not a piss-take; these really are terrific songs. I just sometimes get a little down on myself for falling for the facile siren wails of unabashed pop. I was young once, you know. Young and way too cool for these sorts of confections. Thank God I've outgrown that foolish notion.

In no particular order (well, okay, alphabetically):

  • "Doctor Blind", Emily Haines
    Pitchfork actually put the accompanying clip on its year's best videos list, but where's the love for the song itself? Haines's moody ode to an overmedicated loved one is a marvelous example of that rare pop song in which the music perfectly complements the lyrics. The unsettling shifts in the time signature keep the listener off-balance while the woozy strings perfectly evoke the soft, fuzzy intoxication of chemical depressants. There have been countless attempts through the years, but rarely does a listening experience actually feel like a drug.
  • "Here (In Your Arms)", Hellogoodbye
    Let's see. If you've never heard the band, this is a tough one to explain. Hellogoodbye are sort of like this typically lame southern California emo band, with all of the whiny vocals and nauseatingly precious lyrics that implies. But then last Christmas the singer got a vocoder and the drummer got a cheap-ass drum machine, and they all got way into shitty Euro-club pop. So now they write the same cloying songs, but they slather them with obnoxious four-on-the-floor disco beats and gobs of woefully unecessary autotuner effects. And the results... are awesome. Trust me, this cut is infectious.
  • "Hey You", Basement Jaxx
    I am baffled as to how this little slice of excess got ignored, especially since Internet music dorks have always celebrated Basement Jaxx because, not in spite, of their utter ridiculousness. This might be their most ludicrous track yet, a towering carnival of blaring brass, tribal chants and all the (literal) bells and whistles they could stuff in there. I mean really, would you take "Oh My Gosh" over this over-the-top circus of excess? Turn it way up on some good speakers and listen to the way the tympanies(!) carry the chorus away to some magical cotton candy world and back again.
  • "Hit the Floor", Twista ft. Pitbull
    Twista's world's-fastest-rapper gimmick gets pretty tiresome over the course of a full-length album, particularly the 70-minute endurance tests of the CD age. In small doses though, he's never less than a welcome delight on any track, and this one is no exception. The relentless mindfuck of a beat obscures the generic party-hearty lyrics; bob your head in lieu of singing along.
  • "I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Is In", Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
    I'm not sure if this was released in 2006 or late 2005, but I spun it enough times this year that respect is due. Available as a mail order only2 45 (presumably for copyright reasons), Jones and her Dap-Tones take a corny old Kenny Rogers chestnut and, rather than make a joke out of it, transform it into a tight, mean funk workout, key changes and all. The year's hottest old-school track, the magnificent Amy Winehouse be damned.
  • "Keep Holding On", Avril Lavigne
    Remember when her whole "anti-Britney" (her own term, by the way) gimmick seemed so fresh? The whole punky skater-chick thing (wifebeaters and neckties: Whoa! Somebody stop her!) was a breath of freah air for teen-pop back when squeaky-clean Disney alums ruled the adolescent airwaves, and her slick, radio-ready guitar kick-ins stood out sonically from the shiny plastic dance-pop being force-fed our nation's youth just a few short years ago. Naturally, she inspired career makeovers across the board, as girls from all walks, from the prefab TV princess to the aging indie queen, recast themselves as modern-day grrrls with loud guitars and engineers like the Matrix got paid big bucks to water those very guitars down for the impressionable youth of TRL Nation. Which raises the most vexing question of young Avril's career: what does the revolutionary do when she's won?

    In Avril's case, she grows up fast and reinvents herself as the Diane Warren of the teen set. Already learning to rake it in as a songwriter-for-hire (check the credits atop Kelly's last one), here she steps back behind the mic for a movie soundtrack one-off. The song is essentially "How Do I Live" rewritten with a bunch of yearbook slogans; the guitars are turned down, the strings are turned up, every note is obvious, every word a cliché. The song essentially functions as a publicly-posted resumé for anyone who can't afford Linda Perry's services.

    Having said all that, it probably sounds as though I don't actually like the song, but I do, a lot. I'm a sucker for this sort of overblown sentimentalism, and this track is textbook. What places it slightly above other songs of its ilk is little more than a personal predilection toward Avril's voice, especially the way she pronounces all of her "s"es with a slight "sh", as in "We were meant to be, shupposhed to be/But we losht it". It's the little things, you know?

  • "Like U Crazy", Mates of State
    I heard a music writer say in an interview earlier this year that he adores the Mates of State, that "they don't have a bad track in them." When the skeptical interviewer asked him to elaborate, the writer explained that he loves the idea of couple bands, in which the boy is no longer yearning for the girl, he's already won her, and the two simply write beautiful music together to celebrate the love they share. Like Yo La Tengo, like Viva Voce, like Mitch & Mickey, etc. I, for one, second that emotion.

    "Like U Crazy" has it all: weepy, dominant chord progression, simple waltz time, two voices declaiming their love in unison. When they get to the chorus their voices rise as they pour their hearts into the song. From a conventional standpoint they sound awful: there are no pretty, intricate harmonies here, just two amateurish singers belting away at a sloppy duet. It's confusing, messy and somewhat out of tune. Just like real love.

  • "Mon Coeur, Mon Amour", Anais
    What I love most about this song, besides the fact that it's a delightfuly fizzy piece of underproduced indie-guitar candy, is that, since I don't speak French, the lyrics are whatever I want them to be. I know the title means "My Heart, My Love", which gives a basic idea but not much beyond that. If the song were a weepy ballad, there wouldn't be much left to the imagination. As it stands, it could be anything: a joyous declaration, an unrequited plea, a defiant break-up, you name it.
  • "Setting Sun", Howling Bells
    British people wearing cowboy hats, western shirts and other basic signifiers of Americana are generally a dicey proposition, and for the most part the Howling Bells' bland roots rock ably lives up to the dubious promise of their wardrobes. "Setting Sun", however, is a marvelous exception with the unmistakeable power to inspire all manner of overwrought metaphors, a haunting slice of twilight that sneaks around behind you and taps you on the opposite shoulder. The singer's sleepy voice and vague lyrics are pleasant enough, but it's the spooky lead guitar lines that carry the whole the tune across the good/great divide, dripping a trail of voodoo magic along the path behind them as they go.
  • "Vans", The Pack
    I love the way hiphop is finally embracing skateboarding, and can't believe it took this long to come to full fruition. Both are urban youth cultures that place a premium on the absolute latest in anything, embrace any defiance of authority, develop elaborate and constantly-evolving codes of fashion and language inscrutable to outsiders, and have a strong and lucrative appeal to a suburban demographic. What was the hold-up?

    "Vans" is the oddball flipside to Lupe Fiasco's widely praised "Kick, Push", a hiphop skater's anthem tailor-made for wider acceptance what with the lush samples and easily-parsed storytelling. "Vans", by contrast, features a group of average rhymers mumbling about their shoes. They praise them for their "punk-rock" qualities, list a few of the designs available, brag on how little they cost, even drop a bit of well-researched company history into a verse. All over a track consisting of little more than a few fingersnaps, some high-hats and a dizzyingly deep synth line, just the sort of disorienting minimal weirdness that makes one scrutinise the spaces between the sounds to see if there's anything else there.

  • "Way I Be Leanin'", Juvenile ft. Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Wacko and Skip
    "Get Ya Hustle On" seems to be the consensus pick from Reality Check, but I'll take this relentless ensemble number over the album's opening statement of purpose as a standalone single. The screwed-n-chopped Jay-Z sample in the hook would be the best part if it weren't for the irrepressible Mike Jones, who hops all over the mic like a kid at recess. Praise for "Hustle" tends to focus on its uncompromising sociopolitical message in the wake of the Katrina disaster, but if you can't see the relevance in a New Orleans rapper cutting a posse track with an all-star lineup of Houston MCs, you weren't paying attention when it all went down.

And while we're at it, some other observations of all these lists:

  • Most appearances, song: Clipse's "Mr. Me Too" made four lists, all but the Paper Thin Walls mix; presumably the one-track-per-writer format made that one much tougher to crack. Incidentally, Gnarls Barkley's ubiquitous "Crazy" would have made the same four lists, but Pitchfork proudly pointed out in their introduction that since they were cool enough to hear the white label of the song in 2005, it wasn't eligible for 2006's list. Whoopee, dorks.
  • Most total appearances, artist: Clipse had one more appearance with a different song, bringing their total to five. This tied tham with Nelly Furtado, who spread three different songs across three lists, and Hot Chip, who placed two songs on three lists, for a total of five each.
  • Most unique songs, artist: Over the space of three lists, Ghostface managed to rack up a whopping four different songs.

Aaaaand how about my favourite cuts that only made one list:

  • Cokemachineglow: I'm stumped here. Every song I've heard and liked is on another list as well. Which is not to say that CMG didn't come up with their share of unique entries, just that I haven't heard too many of them. But I will. And perhaps I'll update this line in the future.
  • Pitchfork: "Ain't No Other Man", Christina Aguilera
    How on earth did this miss Stylus's list? Those guys are the biggest pop suckers going. Hands down one of the best singles of the year in my view. Terrific vocal performance, urgent and unstoppable rhythm track. This is quite honestly one of my favourite singles of the decade.
  • PopMatters: "Here I Come", The Roots
    Arguably ?uestlove's finest three minutes to date on the ol' trap kit. Listen to him work that ride cymbal. Black Thought is frequently criticised for his mediocre lyrics, but I don't even notice the lyrics on this cut; too wrapped up in that beat.
  • Paper This Walls: "Apple Tree Victim", Prurient
    Just the latest in a long line of examples of how an excruciatingly distorted recording of a simple, elegant melody can be one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful sounds imaginable.
  • Stylus: "Rehab", Amy Winehouse
    I don't care if this is fake-ass British neo-soul. The groove is funky, the voice is smoky, the lyrics are a hoot. She pulls this schtick off in a way Jamiroquai's never even approached.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Best-album only tracks of the year: "A Method", TV on the Radio; "1,000 Seconds", Secret Machines [Return]
  2. You can pick it up here. And I highly recommend that you do. By the way, full disclosure: I knew the bass player in college. But I haven't seen him in years. [Return]

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