Wednesday, December 13, 2006

2006's Top 20 Singles

20) Dixie Chicks - “Not Ready to Make Nice” (Open Wide/Columbia)
Hey, remember a few years ago when the Dixie Chicks got in trouble when singer Natalie Maines said on stage in London, “We’re embarrassed President Bush is from Texas?” Yeah, me neither. But the usual close-minded country radio format never forgot, even if a majority of folks here in the grand old U.S. of A. made it clear in the mid-term elections that they ain’t so fond of W. “Not Ready to Make Nice” didn’t make a dent on the country charts, and with the sound and lyrics of this first single from Taking the Long Way, it seems as though the Chicks could care less. In fact, when I listen to this very-much-a-rock-and-not-a-country-song and such phrases as “I'm through with doubt/There’s nothing left for me to figure out/I’ve paid a price/And I'll keep paying,” I picture one Texas-size middle finger being given to the fans and the country establishment who turned on them. And being a guy who’s used his middle finger as a vehicle for expression for over 25 years, I can totally understand where the Chicks are coming from.

19) Josh Rouse - “It Looks Like Love” (Bedroom Classics/Nettwerk)
On last year’s Nashville Josh Rouse penned a song called “My Love Is Gone” which couldn’t be interpreted as anything else but a commentary about the state of his falling-apart marriage. “It Looks Like Love” could be called the flipside of “My Love Is Gone,” as Rouse sings about his new Spanish lady in almost embarrassing detail. Hey Josh, I’m happy that Paz (that’s the new girlfriend’s name) sends you pictures “She shot in the nude,” but do we really need to know that “She likes to sit on me too, yes, yes/She got me coming, baby, every night/And in the daytime too.” I swear, if this song somehow ends up in a Cialis commercial, I’m taking my copy of Subtitlo and throwing it out the window of my office. (And hoping that it hits one of the folks from Radio City Music Hall telling through megaphones that people holding tickets for the 4p.m. Christmas Spectacular to enter on 51st street.) Thankfully for us listeners, the rest of the song is a sweet message to those who have been dumped and don’t expect to discover true love again. Who these people are—cough, cough—I don’t really know, but I’m sure lines like “There goes that melancholy feeling again/It looks like love is gonna find a way/And just when you stop believing in it/It looks like love is gonna show its face” could help almost anyone heal a little bit.

18) Ok Go - “Here It Goes Again” (Capitol)
There is perhaps no better example of the power of You Tube than the resurrection of Ok Go’s career through two extremely popular videos that are low on production values yet but high on inventive choreography. The “Here It Goes Again” clip (with its use of treadmills) is absolutely one of the best videos I’ve ever seen. I’ve probably watched it a couple of dozen times, yet had no idea what this little guitar pop gem was about. (Except that it was about three minutes long. Thank you, thank you very much.) One day I happened to look up the lyrics and discovered it describes the aftermath of a one night stand almost perfectly. Who hasn’t a night like this opening line: “It could be ten, but then again, I can't remember half an hour since a quarter to four/Throw on your clothes, the second side of Surfer Rosa, and you leave me with my jaw on the floor.” I mean, I’ve heard of bands ripping off the Pixies’ sound for years, but how often does a band name check Black Francis and company? Not often enough for my tastes.

17) Justin Timberlake (featuring T.I.) - “My Love” (Jive/Zomba Label Group)
The former boy band star might have tried to bring sexy back, but he was much better at bringing marriage proposals back. It’s hard to think that Timberlake wrote this stunningly catchy song with his longtime girlfriend Cameron “Look at the Moon and You’ll See My Meteor-Ravaged Face” Diaz in mind. I mean imagine what she’s going to look like when she’s forty? That face will have more potholes on it than that one section of the BQE that makes a couple of my teeth shake loose every ride back from Shea Stadium. Okay, enough about crater-face, back to the song. Everything about “My Love” points to me hating it—it’s got one of those guest raps (from Atlanta star T.I.) that seem tacked on because the producer didn’t know what to do in the middle; it was produced by Timbaland, who’s personally responsible for two of the crappiest number-one hits of this year or any other (Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Nellie Furtado’s “Promiscuous”) and it’s got that damned human beatbox trick that Timberlake is so fond of showing off as much as possible. And yet… yet…aw fuck it, this song is so catchy I want to get up and dance in the middle of the F train each time it comes up on my iPod. That keyboard sound that was dated 15 years ago hooks me like a candy cane to the brain. And then there’s either a human voice sped up or some interesting sample during the chorus that sounds similar to a hyena laughing that grabs me more and more with each play. Damn you Timberlake—how can I rightfully hate you when you make pieces of pop that are this good!

16) Lupe Fiasco - “Kick Push” (Atlantic)
I’ve never liked skateboarding—even when I was in high school and everyone is supposed to want a skateboard. I must admit (Cranky old man alert!) even now I hate hate HATE the two teenagers that skate almost every weekend on my block. The sound of the wheels down the street, the clickity clack when they jump off their boards and then do a bit of wiping out, the screeching of car tires when they have to stop short because these kids are dangerously close to being hit. Oh yeah, it really brings out my inner Tony Hawk. With all of this hatred, it makes perfect sense that I would like a Muslim rapper from Chicago with a great sense of lyrical flow who does a track about a skateboard kid growing up. I will now jump out my window and hope my brain returns to its upright position.

15) Paul Westerberg - “Love You In the Fall” (Lost Highway)
Oh what a joy it is to hear Paul Westerberg make a song that sounds (and was) professionally recorded. It seems like years since the former Replacement released something where I didn’t reach for the treble knob on my receiver. “Love You In the Fall” has almost all of the elements I look for in a great Westerberg song: a single guitar opens up with the riff, Paul yells out something completely unintelligible when the drums kick in; the drums are damn powerful (thank you, Josh Freese); and I can sing along with the chorus after one listen. Lyrically this isn’t a masterpiece from the Westerberg songbook, but—and I know I will hear about this from some folks—I like this song much better than the two Replacements reunion songs. (And it even had the exact same personnel as those reunion tunes, minus Chris Mars on vocals.) The line to make your complaints starts to the left.

14) The Raconteurs - “Steady As She Goes” (Third Man/V2)
I still remember the first joke I thought of when I heard the opening 30 seconds of this song—Joe Jackson called, and he’s looking sharp to sue your ass. The extremely similar bassline to “Is She Really Going Out With Him” aside, this first single from the Detroit via Nashville supergroup is a perfect introduction to this band’s strengths. 2005 list favorites Jack White and Brendan Benson sound as if they’ve been harmonizing since they were little kids. And the rhythm section knows how to rock hard when the chorus rolls around. I hope for their next album White and Benson rip off the bassline from “Steppin’ Out.”

13) Snow Patrol - “Hands Open” (A&M/Interscope)
Ireland’s Snow Patrol have scored success in the U.S. with two mid-tempo ballads—“Run” from their 2004 disc Final Straw, which I happen to like, and “Chasing Cars” from this year’s Eyes Open, a song which makes me want to get some Gray’s Anatomy DVDs and start throwing them at innocent bystanders. I had really high hopes for Eyes Open when I first heard the lead single (and sort of title track) “Hands Open.” Singer Gary Lightbody is...wait, I can go no further without writing this guy’s last name again: Lightbody. And as far as I can tell, it’s his real name! Wow, I can only imagine what kids said to him while growing up. It makes me dream of a day where everyone will be named as if they were a minor character in the Star Wars film series. Sorry, I got a bit distracted there. “Hands Open” is a rarity in the Snow Patrol world—it rocks. As a matter of fact, the opening combo of guitar and drums may be the simplest and dumbest combination these guys have created. I like stupidity in my music and in most aspects of my everyday life which explains why I enjoy it so much. Alas, the rest of the album doesn’t live up to this song’s promise, but I’m sure other tracks on it will help move along the plot development for Dr. McDreamy’s character throughout 2007. And while we’re at it, I hate that Fray song too. Wow, why am I so bitter about a show I never watch? Maybe it’s all those music video looking ads I saw over the summer. Okay, it must be time for a cold beverage to take the edge off.

12) KT Tunstall - “Other Side of the World” (Virgin)
The latest single from perhaps the most unlikely Top 20 album of the year is a tearjerker of the highest order. Heartbreak oozes out of Tunstall’s voice with every line about a troubled long-distance relationship. Again, on the surface there’s nothing different from the tons of other female singer-songwriters on the scene today. Yet I can’t resist being sucked in. And you know what? I still hate that fucking Fray song.

11) Death Cab For Cutie - “Crooked Teeth” (Atlantic)
When this song was released as the second single from Plans back in January of this year, I knew that it would be on the Top 20 11 months later. It’s always been my favorite song from that album. It’s a perfect match-up of a wickedly catchy song with some crisp production. There’s a part just before the second verse starts where a heavily processed backwards symbol crash slowly fades in, and every time I hear it I think, “How did Chris Walla (he’s the producer and band’s guitarist) know that would be perfect little trick for that moment?” The imagery that gives the song its title (“Cause at night the sun in retreat/Made the skyline look like crooked teeth/In the mouth of a man who was devouring, us both”) comes to mind whenever I’m riding the train home as the sun is setting over New Jersey. And the lines “You're so cute when you're slurring your speech/But they're closing the bar and they want us to leave” make me think frontman Ben Gibbard spent some time trailing me during his visits to New York. Hmm.

10) Christina Aguilera - “Ain’t No Other Man” (RCA)
I will now throw my credibility into a poorly cleaned toilet in Penn Station. Yes, the woman who was once voted Most Likely to Whore Herself Out to a White Trash Dancer (amazing how Miss Spears wrestled that crown away) returned this year with a double album (wtf?) that, from most accounts, isn’t half bad. “Ain’t No Other Man” is an ode to Aguilera’s husband that does go a bit overboard with the pledging o’ the love at times: “What was cloudy now is clear/Yeah, yeah/You’re the light that I needed/You got what I want boy, and I want it/So keep on givin' it up!” Oy. But D.J. Premier’s irresistible beats mixed with a snappy horn sample and Aguilera’s great pipes add up to a track that is hard to resist.

9) Kelly Clarkson - “Walk Away” (RCA)
Oh, wait, here’s where I throw away my credibility. But dammit, this song is so fucking catchy and is a worthy successor to “Since U Been Gone.” It pains me to know that Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk co-wrote the song with Clarkson and her husband, Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida. Kreviazuk was one of the most arrogant people I ever had to interview in the past 11 years and to me seemed to be the least likely person to write or co-write a hit song that Top 40 stations around the country would play ad infinitum. So I’m just going to believe that Clarkson’s talent overwhelmed the Canadian crappiness that could have come through this track.

8) Brandi Carlile - “Throw it All Away” (Columbia)
The self-titled debut from Seattle’s Brandi Carlile was one of those albums that dropped through the cracks in 2005. It took a good deal of airtime on our local Triple A station WFUV for me to get the talent that Carlile packs in her incredible voice. The first time I listened to it I dismissed her as another clone in the Sheryl Crow/Lucinda Williams vein. Yet with repeated listens it’s obvious that Carlile takes her cues from the late Jeff Buckley. Her voice soars, ringing emotion from every line. “Throw It All Away” is a tearjerker that stopped me in my tracks one morning. At that point I'd already put the album in the giveaway stack ages ago, so I had to go to iTunes that day and download it. Then I proceeded to listen to it over and over that week. Something about Carlile's passionate delivery of the chorus slays me every time. I look forward to her follow-up due out next spring.

7) Gomez - “See The World” (ATO/RCA)
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s my nominee for the Most Optimistic Song of 2006. The first time I heard the song on the World Café I knew I would need to get my hands on copy of it as soon as possible. I’m not one to usually enjoy such optimistic lyrics, but even I find these simple lines from singer-guitarist Tom Gray hard to resist: “See the world/Find an old fashioned girl/And when all's been said and done/It's the things that are given, not won/Are the things that you earned.” And I don’t think I could sum up this light guitar pop confection any better than Gray does: “’See the World’ is obviously a very optimistic song. There is light at the end of the tunnel, you know. For chrissake, just stop being such a miserable so and so and get out of that rut and get on with it.”

6) Pearl Jam - “World Wide Suicide” (J)
Over the past decade I’ve come up with a good theory about how much I’m going to like a new Pearl Jam release: the less I like the first single, the more I will love the album. For example, 1996’s No Code was led off by “Who You Are,” which I didn’t like at all. No Code placed at number-five for that year. The first song we heard from 1998’s Yield was “Given to Fly,” which I disliked very much because it was a huge rip off of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” Yield landed at number-one. (I did go on to like “Given to Fly,” but that was after witnessing numerous live performances.) “Nothing As it Seems” is easily the worst first single in Pearl Jam’s career, which lead to their 2000 album Binaural to also check in at number-five. 2002’s Riot Act had “I Am Mine” leadoff, and I loved that song. Hence, Riot Act didn’t even crack the Top 20 that year. “World Wide Suicide” is my favorite leadoff single from a Pearl Jam album since “Spin the Black Circle,” and might be my favorite single they’ve ever put out. So that should explain why the album doesn’t appear in this year’s Top 20. While most critics hailed the self-titled album as Eddie Vedder and company’s best album in more than a decade, I was much less impressed. Proving that you can still rock on almost every song on an album doesn’t necessarily mean quality. But damn, “World Wide Suicide” rocks hard and with a determined purpose and massage: this war is wrong. The lines “Medals on a wooden mantle/Next to a handsome face/That the President took for granted/Writing checks that others pay” spell out who is to blame—and who’s paying the price. And shockingly, this political blast ended up being Pearl Jam’s biggest radio hit since “Last Kiss.” Go figure.

5) Rihanna - “S.O.S.” (Island/Def Jam)
Dear lord, was there anything catchier on radio or MTV than this song this year? Whoever decided to use Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” as the sample for the track is a pure production genius. I listen to it once, I want to listen to it again immediately. As a co-worker said a few months ago, “It sounds like a mash-up of two really good songs.” And at age 18, Rihanna is the youngest artist to appear on the list this year. I will now go bang my head against the wall next to my desk.

4) Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - “This Is Us” (Warner Bros.)
Simply put, I believe this is the best song Mark Knopfler has written in his solo career. (Yes Hank, I know you’re probably shaking your head no right now.) Knopfler and his duet partner Emmylou Harris delivery great low key vocals in this beautiful tale of a couple sharing their memories with one another. Knopfler doesn’t use a lot of words to describe this couple’s life, but the imagery he evokes is striking in its simplicity. “Rocking at the barbecue/Yeah, when we said I do/Hand jiving on the ballroom floor/You in that wedding coat you wore/And you in that amazing dress/I was stoned on love I guess/You and me we were meant to be/This is us.” I can only imagine the amount of hip weddings over the next couple of years where this song will be a main attraction.

3) Soul Asylum - “Stand Up and Be Strong” (Legacy)
(I was going to write a new entry about “Stand Up and Be Strong,” but the Song of the Week entry from June 30th says it all. Visit it here.)

2) Electric Six - “I Buy the Drugs” (Metropolis)
Electric Six frontman Dick Valentine has a knack for making some of the catchiest—and funniest—songs of the 21st century. “I Buy the Drugs” is funny for its entire three minutes and 22 seconds. It’s hard to pick out my favorite line in this keyboard-driven romp, but perhaps it’s the bridge:
“If you ever find yourself in need
You can submit your request in writing
And this is what you do
Send in a self addressed stamped envelope
To PO Box 900
Los Angeles, California 90212
And I will fill your prescription with some degree of accuracy
And then I'll send it back to you”
The first time I heard it I laughed for the entire rest of the song. (And then discovered the address is to a P.O. Box on the Fox lot. I wonder if Rupert Murdoch had to fill someone’s valium prescription this year?) Do yourself a favor and check out the video too. College never looked like so much fun, even while I was in college.

1) Gnarls Barkley - “Crazy” (Downtown/Atlantic)
How can anyone accurately convey the juggernaut that was “Crazy” this year? Do I review each of the 21 versions of the song that I have downloaded this year? How can anyone aptly describe a song that is so different, moving, strange, creepy and ubiquitous that artists from all across the musical spectrum have covered it? (And how often do you think The Raconteurs and Nelly Furtado would tackle the same cover?) And how many songs inspire mash-ups using tracks from Supertramp, Sugarhill Gang, Donna Summer and Elton John? I can’t imagine that Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green ever expected such a response to a song that samples a theme from a spaghetti western and probes the deepest fears of Cee-Lo’s brain. What an amazing format crossing phenomenon. The only song in recent memory that compares would be Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” And while that song may have burned its way in and out of the collective conscience due to overplay, somehow I think “Crazy” will leave its mark for a little while longer. And hey, at least it wasn’t 26 different bands covering that fucking Fray song.

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