Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009's Top 20 Singles

20) Miley Cyrus - “Party in the U.S.A.” (Hollywood)
I could share my various reasons for why this song is on the list (it’s an extremely catchy, well constructed, well produced pop song, co-written by the same guy who co-wrote Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”), but I think it would be more entertaining to see what you wrote about it. So click here for the unedited comments that streamed forth on Facebook under my status update after I decided to stir things up one Tuesday morning.

19) Lily Allen - “The Fear” (Capitol)
Lily Allen became quite the tabloid fixture in the UK (and a bit here too) because of her run-ins with paparazzi—and their tendency to get photos of Allen topless. (Note to self—only do a Google image search about her at home.) All the hubbub overshadowed the fact that Allen’s debut album Alright, Still was a brash and entertaining mix of her straightforward lyrics about guys fucking the girl next door and tales of her pothead brother with poppy ska and reggae influenced tracks. The Allen on It’s Not Me, It’s You returns to her take no prisoners lyrical attitude (especially on “Fuck You,” where she practically giggles through the chorus “fuck you, fuck you very very much) except for “The Fear.” In this song Allen takes a tongue-in-cheek look at celebrities who are famous just for being famous, yet strikes an ominous tone in the chorus: “I don't know what's right and what's real anymore/I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore/When we think it will all become clear/'Cuz I'm being taken over by The Fear.” It’s an intriguing step forward for someone who seems to have a very interesting career ahead of them.
18) Sean Kingston - “Fire Burning” (Epic/Beluga Heights)
Since I was about 12 years old I’ve had bouts of insomnia. It comes and goes with no reason. (Of course, I didn’t have to worry about it when I worked overnights back in the early ’90s.) This year has not been that bad in the sleep department, except for one particularly brutal stretch during the summer. I usually try to stay in bed even if I’m wide awake as I hope against hope that I will drift off into slumberland. One night I gave up at 1:00 a.m. and decided to head to my living room to circle through the channels. Around 4:15 I came across MTV Hits and stopped when I saw heard this kid singing “Somebody call 911! Shawty fire burning on the dance floor, whoa!” over a typical R&B/dancehall track. I laughed out loud at how stupid this line was and decided to watch the whole clip. By the end of it, I couldn’t stop humming that “Somebody call 911” line. I finally fell asleep around 5:30, woke up at 8—and that line was still in my head. I downloaded it when I got to work because I need to hear it again to cleanse my sonic pallet. It didn’t work. So I spent a couple of sleepless days and nights with “Somebody call 911!” popping in and out of my brain. It got me to thinking—maybe it wasn’t that stupid. To get burrowed that deep in my skull, the song had to be worth something. And when my insomnia broke and I still enjoyed thinking “Somebody call 911!,” I knew “Fire Burning” needed a place on this year’s list.

(Or that I need to start taking valium before bed. One or the other.)

17) Neko Case - “People Got a Lot of Nerve” (Anti)
Back in mid-May I could not escape this song. Between listening to the New York NPR adult alternative station WFUV and my usual morning stop in Starbucks, I heard it four out of five mornings one week. I have always thought of Case as a great singer of other people's material (i.e., everything she's sung in New Pornographers). But I've never been a fan of her own originals until “Nerve.” The way she sings “I’m a mana mana mana mana maneater” makes me think she has a tiny bit of experience in that department. I could be wrong. And I wouldn’t think of asking her since she’s posing with a sword on her album cover. Nice Neko, nice Neko….

16) The Figgs - “Casino Hayes” (Peter Walkee Records)
I love gambling. I love The Figgs. Bringing these two interests together in the service of one song? Why didn’t this happen sooner?!!?

15) Phish - “Backwards Down the Number Line” (JEMP)
When I interviewed Phish singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio back in the fall he told me that the band’s reunion started with “Backwards Down the Number Line.” The lyrics came as an email on his birthday from his writing partner Tom Marshall. At that point the two hadn’t spoken in over a year (due in part to Anastasio’s court-ordered rehab). Looking at Marshall’s words, I can see why Anastasio was touched and instantly inspired by his longtime friend:
“Happy happy oh my friend
Blow out candles once again
Leave the presents all inside
Take my hand and let's take a ride

Backwards down the number line
You were eight and I was nine
Do you know what happened then
Do you know why we're still friends

Laughing all these many years
We’ve pushed through hardships
tasted tears
We made a promise one to keep
I can still recite it in my sleep

Every time a birthday comes
Call your friend and sing a song
Or whisper it in to his ears
Or write it down just don't miss a year”

The lyrics are (in my opinion) the best ever in a Phish song. Anastasio told me he quickly wrote music for the words, added a chorus and did a four track demo all in the same afternoon. And the band rose to the occasion, playing with a verve and clarity that they haven’t displayed in many years. Anastasio’s guitar solo practically sings with joy, as if he’s making up for all those wasted (sometimes literally) years in some furiously focused notes. Happy birthday indeed.

14) Wilco - “You Never Know” (Nonesuch)
After my first listen to Wilco (The Album), it seemed obvious to me that “You Never Know” had to be the first single take from the disc. It was Jeff Tweedy's catchiest song since “Heavy Metal Drummer” and had a slicker than usual sound for the band. After I listened to the album a few more times I woke up one morning with “You Never Know” in my head. And it dawned on me why it was so catchy—it was an out and out homage to the Traveling Wilburys. The wall of strummed guitars and the descending piano riff during the chorus? Straight from Jeff Lynne's production handbook. The chord progression those acoustic guitars are bashing out? It could be mistaken for “Won’t Last Long” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers highly underrated 1999 album Echo. The dual slide guitar parts in the solo? George Harrison patented those with the Wilburys and his solo career. Those massive backing vocals? I swear you could hear a mix of Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan in there. Normally I’d be a bit dismissive of someone so closely aping someone else's style. But this was done so well (and sounds like so much fun) I'm sure Tweedy and company knew exactly what they were doing in paying tribute to one of the best supergroups of our time.

13) Norah Jones - “Chasing Pirates” (Blue Note/EMI)
I've never really had that strong of an opinion one way or another about Ms. Jones and her hugely successful career. Her first three albums were cut from the same mellow cloth (which I believe can be bought at Ikea). Her latest disc The Fall sees Jones shaking things up a bit by dropping her long time band and recording with a bunch of L.A. session guys, including uber-drummer Joey Warnoker. Jones also crafted songs that are a bit darker (no likely inspired by her breakup with her boyfriend/bassist Lee Alexander) and at times a bit funkier. “Chasing Pirates” has a bit of that funk and is the catchiest song she's ever written. I listened to it a few times before interviewing her in October and I found myself humming the chorus the rest of the day. When I listened to the entire album for the first time in November, "Chasing Pirates" crept back into that part of my brain that randomly repeats song lyrics over and over again.

(Oh, and it doesn't hurt that she’s, um, kind of attractive.)

12) Chairlift - “Bruises” (Kanine/Columbia)
Yes, this is the song that was in that iPod nano commercial last Christmas. (The one with the female singer cooing “I tried to do handstands for you” in a cute voice.) Yes, I most likely never would have heard it if it wasn’t for that commercial. But no, I never bought a Snuggie, so I’ve got that going for me.

11) Monsters of Folk - “Say Please” (Shangrila Music)
This 21st century Traveling Wilburys—consisting of M. Ward, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis—did a pretty good show in November at the Beacon Theater. With such expansive back catalogs to choose from each artist, as well as their self-titled collaborative album, these guys could have easily played six hours together instead of just close to three. This first single from Monsters of Folk is a song these guys could probably write in their sleep. But it’s so damn catchy and a great show opener that I can easily ignore the by-the-numbers writing approach here. I kept wishing they would play it again during some of the more somber numbers they broke out.

10) Jay-Z Featuring Alicia Keys - “Empire State of Mind” (Atlantic)
I would like to note that I thought this was the best Jay-Z track since “99 Problems” long before it became associated with the New York Yankees playoff run. Even the performance before Game 2 of the World Series didn’t damper my enthusiasm for it. And then when Jay-Z was in the Yankee parade celebrating their 27th championship, I, well, um…

(Pardon me. I need to go light my eyes on fire. I think we should all move on to number-nine.)

9) Noisettes - “Never Forget You” (Mercury)
I must admit—when “Never Forget You” came on WFUV one morning this spring, I thought Amy Winehouse had finally put the crack pipe down and snuck out a single without anyone knowing. The snappy vocal delivery, the swelling string section, the chicka-chicka of the old school R&B guitar—it sounds tailor made for her. But Noisettes singer-bassist Shingai Shoniwa has pipes that put Winehouse’s to shame. The snarl she puts behind the opening line “What you’re drinking, rum or whiskey” makes me think she could probably do a shot of rum—and then a shot of whiskey. The rest of the Noisettes album Wild Young Hearts sounds nothing like “Never Forget You.” But if the band fully embraced this neo-soul sound, the competition might inspire Winehouse to get back to work.

8) Kelly Clarkson - “I Do Not Hook Up” (RCA)
I love how musical fates love to screw around once in awhile. As much as I dislike “I Kissed a Girl” and the amount of pain American Idol caused me the first time I ever watched it (which was this year for work), I’m surprised that I would like a song co-written by Katy Perry and A.I. judge Kara DioGuardi. In the hands of another singer, “I Would Not Hook Up” could come across as a pretty cold and calculated hit song. (Find the Katy Perry demo version on YouTube and you’ll hear exactly how robotic she can be.) In the hands of a decent singer (check), one that could actually deliver genuine emotion behind lyrics she didn’t write (check again) and one that can sound comfortable with a wall of guitars behind her (indeed)…well, it could be fantastic. Clarkson sounds totally impassioned and invested in “I Do Not Hook Up.” I believe she’s been that woman, the one whose man who loves the bottle more than the awesome woman in front of him. I think what I like about Clarkson is that even though her career got started on a TV show, she seems more genuine and down to earth about every aspect of career than any other female pop singer today. (Can I get a “you go girl,” here? Ah, thanks.)

7) Pearl Jam - “The Fixer” (Ten Club)
“The Fixer” is Pearl Jam’s most commercial sounding single from one of their albums since, well, I'd say Ten and “Alive.” (“Daughter” and “Better Man” were not technically singles.) It's also one of their most optimistic sounding songs in a long time. When Eddie Vedder sings the first verse, I'm inclined to believe he can do this entire laundry list of tasks:

“When somethings dark, let me shed a little light on it
When somethings cold, let me put a little fire on it
If somethings old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it
When somethings gone, I wanna fight to get it back again”

Add in the production touch of Brendan O’Brien (strategically placed handclaps, a tiny piano part, guitars that sound like ’80s synths, or perhaps actual ’80s synths) and you've got one great 2:55 song.

(Sidebar: Why has Brendan O’Brien made other acts—the E Street Band, cough cough—sound so muddled, yet this PJ track has the treble all the way up? Weird.)

6) Death Cab for Cutie - “Little Bribes” (Atlantic)
Dear Death Cab For Cutie,

This song, this gorgeous gem, this two minute, forty seven second slice of intelligent, poppy, indie rock, wasn’t good enough to be on your 2008 album Narrow Stairs? Seriously? A song that is better than all of the tracks on it (save “No Sunlight”) couldn’t fit in? Guys, are you fearful of getting more popular? (Wait, you did a song for The Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack, so I think I know the answer to that question.) Seriously, the next album you make, let me pick the track listing. Okay?


5) Ingrid Michaelson - “Maybe” (Cabin 24 Records)
I've written about Ms. Michaelson in the past on the blog and the RT 20 about how she’s such an entertaining interview subject. I spoke with her once again for her latest album Everybody. And for someone who's so witty and charming in an interview (and afterwards) as well as on stage, it’s still surprising to me that she writes some of the darkest songs about relationships of any artist I've come in contact with the past few years. Everybody is—lyrically at least—one downer of an album. Michaelson told me that Everybody is an album about how “love is not enough to keep a relationship going.” She wasn’t kidding, as song after song is about relationships getting blown apart. “Maybe” closes the album on a kind of uplifting note (which was by design to soften the blow of all the bummers that come before it). It’s perhaps her slickest production yet, and that's probably why I found myself humming it over and over again. Upon further reflection, a chorus that goes “maybe in the future you're gonna come back” ain’t so uplifting. But at least it’s got a mass of Michaelsons singing the chorus. She does an incredible job of harmonizing with herself. I could listen to her do harmonies all day. Actually, could I watch her record those harmonies all day too? Thanks for making that happen, mystical fake music god.

4) Grizzly Bear featuring Michael McDonald - “While You Wait For Others” (Warp Records)
I was surprised that the indie rock blogging portion of the Internet didn’t explode and fry servers from coast to coast on August 31st when word got out that Michael “‘What A Fool Believes’ is Still a Great Song, Fuckers” McDonald sang lead on the B-side version of “While You Wait For Others.” I especially enjoyed what Pitchfork wrote that day:

“He’s not doing backup vocals you can barely hear or whatever—dude takes the lead on this version in every possible way. Even in the realm of stunt-y, generation-crossing collaborations, this is fucking weird. McDonald's soul holler could not be more different than original singer Daniel Rossen’s troubled warble.”

They are right—the original vocal is pleasant enough, but this is a good song that needs a great singer to bring it to the next level, and McDonald delivers the goods. It’s absolutely stunning. Add in McDonald harmonizing with the rest of the band on the backing vocals, and you have a recording that makes the original album version obsolete. I now skip the original when I’m listening to Veckatimest. I’ll give props to Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor (who made the McDonald connection through his ex-girlfriend, whose dad knew the former Doobie Brother) and singer Rossen for seeing (or better put, hearing) what could make their art greater and not letting their egos get in the way.

3) Brendan Benson - “A Whole Lot Better” (ATO)
Dear Brendan,

I know you like playing in The Raconteurs, that band with your pal Jack White. And I know the band’s popularity has gotten you into bigger venues than you could have ever imagined. I also know that you’ve co-written some really great songs (“Old Enough,” “Hands”) with Jack. And I was a fan of both Raconteurs discs and that bluegrass remake of “Old Enough” you cut with Ricky Skaggs.

But for goodness sake, four years is far too long to wait for a power-pop gem like this.


Rock on, and I hope we only have to wait two years next time,


2) The Lonely Island featuring T Pain - “I’m on a Boat” (Universal Republic)
I must admit that the videos this SNL trio cooks up run hot (“Dick in a Box,” “Jizz in My Pants”) and cold (“The Space Olympics,” “Ras Trent”) for me. But this song and its corresponding clip are the only reason why I DVR every new episode.

This track works on three levels:

1) It's fucking funny. I can't stop laughing when T. Pain (who is totally in on the joke, but plays it as if it’s just another one of his hit songs) sings “motherfucker” and “I fucked a mermaid” or when Andy Samberg raps “I got a nautical themed pashmina afghan.”

2) It's damn catchy. It’s just as slamming as most hip-hop I’ve heard in the past year.

3) It’s totally weird. Somehow they worked in a reference to Kevin Garnett’s very odd TV interview just after the Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA title (“everything is possible”).

1) The Avett Brothers - “I And Love And You” (American/Columbia)
I love how music creates dialogue between people. I wrote this back in September on the RT 20 blog: “Two months ago I heard this song on WFUV. It stopped me in my tracks when I heard this line: ‘Brooklyn, Brooklyn, let me in/Are you aware the shape I’m in/My hands they shake, my head it spins/Brooklyn, Brooklyn, let me in.’ I was instantly sold.”

After that I went to Austin for the Austin City Limits Festival and stayed once again with my friend Stacy and her boyfriend John. There I saw the Avetts for the first time, and they impressed the heck out of me. After I returned back to New York, John chimed in on the blog: “Steve, I was caught by the 'Brooklyn, Brooklyn' business too - the first time I heard it. But it came to seem almost manipulative to me then, mostly I think given the cache of being part of a band, and therefore part of that specifically hip community in Brooklyn. But the clincher is the title phrase, which goes deep into the heart of schmaltz - no?”

I responded: “I can understand your trepidation about the ‘Brooklyn, Brooklyn’ line, but I had never heard the band until that one morning on WFUV. So I didn’t have that critical awareness going in. And sometimes I like being able to enjoy music on a pure gut level.”

I should have added that the title phrase definitely could lead into the heart of schmaltz, but the song doesn’t cross that line because it neatly dissects the powerful meaning those three words can have. (Of course, this is coming from a guy who thinks Paul McCartney’s “My Love” isn’t schmaltzy, so what the heck do I know?)

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