Friday, December 21, 2007

2007's Top 20 Singles

20) Rihanna (featuring Jay-Z) - “Umbrella” (Def Jam)
Out of the crop of female pop/R&B singers that have broken out over the past years, I have the biggest soft spot for Rihanna. Each album the now 19 year old has recorded has contained at least one fantastic single that takes over the airwaves. In 2005 it was “Pon de Replay." In 2006 it was “S.O.S.” Two huge songs in two years—and Jay-Z feels he has to “help out” on the first single from her third album? C’mon Hova, what gives? His rap at the beginning of “Umbrella” is perhaps the worst and most useless verse he’s uttered in a stellar career. To me it reeks of desperation. Fortunately for us he’s gone after 32 seconds and then 23 seconds later we’re onto the great chorus that sticks in your head for a week or two before it moves on to infect someone else. I predict that people will be saying “ella, ella, a, a, a” for years to come.

19) Interpol - “Heinrich Maneuver” (Capitol)
I’d like to crown Interpol the new kings of catchy songs that never feature the song’s title in the lyrics. Their first album is chock full of songs that I couldn’t give you the title to without looking it up. I have no idea why this song is called “Heinrich Maneuver.” Is it due to the line “and today my heart swings” in the chorus? I have no idea. All I know that when the song opens with these lines—“How are things on the west coast? I hear you’re moving real fine/You wear those shoes like a dove. Now strut those shoes we go roaming in the night”—I’m sucked right into their peculiar kind of groove. And as long as that groove doesn’t come along with some sort of STD I’ll be okay.

18) KRS-One, Kanye West, Nas & Rakim - “Classic (Better Than I've Ever Been DJ Premier Remix)” (Nike)
Here’s a first in the history of the Top 20 list—this track was financed by a shoe company. In the state of today’s music industry where songs become hits due to their placement in commercials, I guess that’s to be expected. Honestly, some of the lyrics go by so fast I have no idea if Kayne or Nas or Rakim even mention Nike shoes. (Oh, wait, Nas just rapped “I’m classic like the Air One’s/The hustler’s shoe that’s what I’m accustom to.” Can’t believe it took 25 listens for me pick that reference.) In any case, this meeting of rap talents past and present is memorable due to the mixing talents of the always reliable DJ Premier. And KRS-One has been a favorite since I first heard BDP in college, so it’s good to hear him get some mainstream airplay.

17) The Bird and the Bee - “I’m a Broken Heart” (Blue Note)
A song that repeats its title 18 times, the phrase “I try” over 50 times and doesn’t have much more in the lyric department shouldn’t work this well. The Bird and The Bee singer Inara George pulls it off with a breathy voice that conveys serious heartbreak mixed and healthy dose of detachment from the relationship that’s just tanked all at the same time. It’s fascinating to hear. Some moments I think her vocal is making fun of romantic suckers; at others she’s the most sympathetic singer you’ve every heard. Her bandmate Greg Kurstin doesn’t make my decision any easier by surrounding her voice with a lush pop production.

16) Common (featuring Lily Allen) - “Drivin’ Me Wild” (Good/Geffen)
Common’s latest album Finding Forever is definitely a letdown after 2005’s fantastic Be. I didn’t give this song a second thought until I saw him perform at the Austin City Limits Festival down in Austin back in September. Three sets of lines caught my ear—and made me chuckle—as he rapped in the Sunday sun:

1) “She was the type to watch Oprah and the Today Show/Be on the treadmill like Ok Go”

2) “Doin all she can for a man and a baby/Drivin herself crazy like the astronaut lady”

3) “They was one of them couples, people said they were the it/Unbreakable, like Bobby and Whit/Or Ryan and Reese, or Kimora and Russ/Relationships can be dead but look live to us”

That “drivin herself crazy like the astronaut lady” line never fails to entertain me, which proves that a) one humorous line can land a song on this list and b) I’m a mean and cruel person.

15) White Stripes - “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” (Third Man/WB)
The latest effort from Jack and Meg White didn’t grab me like the duo’s last two albums. (I suppose I should have known that sooner when their cover of “Conquest” was my favorite song after a couple of listens.) “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is by far the best original on Icky Thump and just might be the most accessible and pop-oriented song Jack White has penned.

14) Arcade Fire - “Keep the Car Running” (Merge)
This one’s easy to explain why it’s here—it’s the second best Bruce Springsteen single of the year. Well, except he didn’t write or record it. But he did perform it with the song’s writer Win Butler in Ottawa in October, so I think he’s okay with this Canadian collective ripping him off. The clips on YouTube of the E Street Band performing it show that Springsteen totally digs the song, as he’s singing along to the words even when it’s not his turn at the mic.

13) Pearl Jam -“Love Reign O’ Me” (Ten Club)
Even the Pearl Jam and Who fan in me will admit that this is about as carbon copy a cover as you’ll find. But the Pearl Jam fan in me is blinded by hearing Eddie Vedder scream for all he’s worth during the song’s chorus. And that guy wins over the logical guy every time.

12) Modest Mouse - “Dashboard” (Epic)
Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock sticks with the positive outlook put forward by “Float On” in this first single from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, or as positive as a song that uses a car wreck metaphor can possibly be. New Mouser Johnny Marr—yeah, that guy who created the “How Soon is Now” riff—doesn’t add much to the band’s distinctive scratchy guitar sound. As a matter of fact, most of the guitar parts are drowned out by horns and strings. Thankfully Brock’s always distinctive voice is there on top of it all, yelling great lines about erasing taped T-V shows and how “the windshield was broken but I love the fresh air y’know.”

11) Suzanne Vega - “Frank & Ava” (Blue Note)
I’d have to choose Suzanne Vega as the most welcome comeback of the year. Her New York-centric Beauty and Crime is one of the best albums I discovered this year when prepping for an interview. In “Frank & Ava” Vega looks back at a time when stars like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener ruled (and fought all over) the town. It’s the catchiest tune Vega has done since the days of Tom and his diner, helped in no small part by the sublime backing vocals throughout by 2006’s Top 20 crush of the year (sigh) K.T. Tunstall. And like most great singles, it’s over (at 2:37) long before I want it to end.

10) Amy Winehouse - “You Know I’m No Good” (Republic/Universal)
How can anyone write about Amy Winehouse in their year end list without taking her personal problems into account? Each story about her, her husband, her drug habits, her tendency to stumble around London in just a bra, her being arrested for pot and then for “perverting the course of justice”—it’s hard to separate the punchline from the talented woman. In this tale of doing a boyfriend wrong Winehouse sounds so sure of herself and her actions (even if they were wrong) it’s a shame that she’s obviously destroyed all that self-confidence in the year since Back to Black was released in England. Maybe Roger Moore needs to get some gadgets from Q, kick some ass and get her back on the right path.

9) Peter, Bjorn & John - “Young Folks” (Almost Gold Recordings)
If I hadn’t heard this song in at least five TV series along with various commercials over the past few months I might have been in the Top 3. I can only imagine how burned out the people who first heard the song as an import last fall must feel right now. I bet the Seven Dwarves would be murdered if they ventured into Williamsburg.

8) Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - “The Sons of Cain” (Touch and Go)
My iTunes says I’m listening to “The Sons of Cain” for the 32nd time this year as I write this sentence. Yet I couldn’t recite a single lyric that Leo sings in this power-pop-punk confection. This song is all about the riff. I’ve air guitared to it at my desk, on a bus, on a train and when I was pissed off and wanted to make a fuss. Whoa, when did Dr. Suess get behind the keyboard?

7) Foo Fighters - “The Pretender” (Rosewell/RCA)
I must admit I found myself stupefied as I watched the Grammy nominations be announced in early December. Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins had just finished reading two sets of nominations when producer Jimmy Jam announced that the guys had just been nominated for Record of the Year for “The Pretender.” I knew the song had gotten a lot of rock airplay through the fall, but who knew that would actually sink into the heads of Grammy voters? “The Pretender” is another entry in a long line of catchy singles Dave Grohl has unleashed upon us over the past decade. Did I finally have something in common with the Recording Academy? I had to play it again to get a clearer view.

After a couple more listens “The Pretender” didn't seem that different from the patented soft-loud-louder-soft-loudest template that Grohl helped perfect during his time in Nirvana. Then I searched out the lyrics, and that is where I discovered what won over Grammy voters. “The Pretender” isn't about a girl keeping secrets—it's a spot-on indictment of our current administration. Get a gander at these lines:

“Keep you in the dark
You know they all pretend
Keep you in the dark
And so it all began
Send in your skeletons
Sing as their bones go marching in... again
The need you buried deep
The secrets that you keep are ever ready
Are you ready?
I'm finished making sense
Done pleading ignorance
That whole defense
Spinning infinity, boy
The wheel is spinning me
It's never-ending, never-ending
Same old story
What if I say I'm not like the others?
What if I say I'm not just another one of your plays?
You're the pretender
What if I say that I'll never surrender?”

In light of the CIA destroying evidence and the revelation that we, the people, were being lied to about Iraq...I mean Iran, Grohl's words really take on a new meaning.

Well, that, and that it fucking rocks.

6) Kanye West - “Stronger” (Hip Hop Since 1978/Roc-A-Fella)
A rap cut that uses a song from a French techno duo for its main sample? Now that is a producer really putting his noggin to work. My first thought about “Stronger” when I heard it on the radio is that it sounded like nothing else out there getting played. The Daft Punk-propelled track just jumped out of the speakers while I was getting a haircut. (Fortunately I didn’t move suddenly to the beat or I could have been doing a list of my favorite closed captioned movies instead.) The lyrics are average, but this hysterical couplet is a sign that Mr. West might just be right about his own brilliance: “You know how long I've been on ya? Since Prince was on Apollonia/Since OJ had Isotoners.” Ha ha ha.

5) Patty Griffin - “Heavenly Day” (ATO)
Following in the footsteps of Suzanne Vega at #11, I was exposed to Patty Griffin’s brilliant songwriting because I had to prep for a work interview. Griffin is best known as the songwriter who the Dixie Chicks covered for the title track of their gazillion-selling album Fly. This first single from Griffin’s own Children Running Through is a slow, sappy ballad through and through. Look at these lines:

“Oh heavenly day, all the clouds blew away
Got no trouble today with anyone
The smile on your face I live only to see
It's enough for me, baby, it's enough for me”

Before my interview I found myself liking it against my best judgment. Then Griffin explained that the song tumbled out of her one day after her and her dog Bean got to move back into her house after some renovation. The puppy ran itself ragged around her backyard then fell asleep with a “little doggie smile on its face.” I’m a cold hearted bastard, but even I find it kind of hard to dislike a song written for someone’s dog. Also I have found myself liking songs written about cats, yet not liking cats. I guess that falls into the whole “hates tomatoes, likes tomato sauce” mystery of my life.

4) Justin Timberlake - “What Comes Around…Goes Around” (Jive/Zomba Label Group)
So when does the backlash start against this guy? Three great # 1 singles from one album, some well received minor roles in films, sold out shows around the world and he’s been with Scarlett Johanson and Jessica Biel. Actually, I think my backlash started just as I finished that sentence. Lucky bastard.

3) Feist - “1234” (Cherrytree/Interscope)
My lifelong habit of singing and humming along to songs (especially in a car by myself) is something I picked up from my aunt. She would sing and hum along to everything, even if the radio’s off. While I was visiting her this spring she was humming along to some song that made me wanted to drive the truck into a ditch. Instead, I decided I needed to get a tune into my head to combat the noise she was making. All of sudden “1 2 3 4” popped in there...and that was it. This song was stuck in my head for two full days until I was able to pop the iPod on and give it a spin. And another. And then another. And repeat. Also I feel pretty proud of myself for genuinely liking this song long before the video popped up on every blog or was used in that iPod Nano commercial.

2) Bruce Springsteen - “Radio Nowhere” (Columbia)
I first heard “Radio Nowhere” when one of the promo folks at Columbia dropped by to play it for a couple of us at our office. I thought it was okay, but certainly not as good as “Lonesome Day” from The Rising. Yet I found myself humming it again and again that afternoon. Then I realized why I was humming it—the riff sounded suspiciously like Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309 (Jenny).” That was kind of disappointing but after all the people who’ve ripped off the Boss over the past 30 years (see song #14) I think he’s entitled to a little thievery. A song this hooky and rocking overrules the critical part of my brain. Each time Steve Van Zandt’s harmony vocals cut through Brendan O’Brien’s cluttered production on “I just want to feel some rhythm” I want to pump my fist like I’m at an E Street Band show. It’s the best single Springsteen has released since “Murder Incorporated” and one that captures the power of this massive edition of the E Street Band.

1) Amy Winehouse - “Rehab” (Republic/Universal)
Again, I have a hard pulling the tabloid view of Amy Winehouse away from one of the best songs ever written about drug and booze abuse. The picture to the left of her today and her three years ago is the best visual proof that she should reject her own song’s tale and get herself some help, fast. On the musical side of things, producer Mark Ronson deserves some major props for constructing a masterful backing track that echoes the best of ’60s soul yet at the same time sounds right at home in today’s hip-hop. No wonder why multiple rappers made their own versions of the song. And just to bring the singles list full circle, the remix that has Winehouse’s U.S. label president Jay-Z’s dropping a verse is worthless and ruins a song that is perfectly fine in its original version.

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