- My annual Summer compilation comes on hard, finishes soft. And it’s the widest-ranging in years.
Emily’s birthday was last week, and among her gifts from me was the annual Summer CD (her third, my eighth). I actually produced a rough mix of the CD a month ago, just before our July 4th visit to Sara Leitch’s family’s house in the Poconos; there, I played the first draft for a captive audience in the hot tub. I got some reactions to the songs, then made a few tweaks.
I needed feedback, because Summer 2004 is one of the stranger compilations I’ve put together – at least as a collection of pop songs. There’s more hip-hop than usual, but that’s only right, given the current state of Top 40 radio. However, there’s also some dark orchestral pop, some pseudo-jazz, one song bordering on metal and another that’s only been a hit in England. There’s even some twang – the first country song I’ve put on a Summer comp (not counting an O Brother bluegrass track I included in 2001). To adequately summarize the summer of 2004 and not get stuck in Top 40 radio’s Usher-dominated rut, you need to spread out a bit.
The whole idea of Summer is to create my dream top 40 station – populist, reflective of mass-appeal taste but wider-ranging than any radio playlist. Emily put it well the other day when she called it “songs from the summer that you can’t escape.” Except these are the songs we (or at least I) don’t want to escape.
Okay, so here’s where I ended up.
- Modest Mouse, “Float On” – I led off last year’s CD with a formerly indie band that finally scored a Modern Rock smash after a long, slow climb. That song was the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” and Modest Mouse’s sleeper is this year’s equivalent, topping the chart this week after four months. It’s actually just right that “Float On” peaked in July: it’s a summer song, all shimmery guitars and shambling vocals. Did you ever think Isaac Brock’s band of merry goofballs would ever produce anything so radio-friendly?
- Kanye West featuring Syleena Johnson, “All Falls Down” – It’s interesting how hip-hop keeps trying to fill the gap Lauryn Hill left behind. The husky, pirouetting vocal by Johnson on Kanye’s late-spring hit is Lauryn lite, the sequel to “Ex-Factor” that Hill herself never produced. It’s hard to single out any track from West’s massive College Dropout album, which works so well as a total piece. But “All Falls Down” was a solid top-10 smash and a great showcase for his conversational flow, his way with a hook. Plus, the video, based around an airport dropoff, is a gas.
- Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out” – You heard it here first: this song is going to top the critics’ polls for best single in all the rock magazines, unless OutKast or Missy Elliott pull something out of their asses in the next five months. It deserves it: propulsive, muscular, clever, “Take Me Out” isn’t punk, isn’t new wave, isn’t disco, but it sounds like all those things at once. And that tempo change! When was the last time a rock song threw away a perfectly good beat less than one minute in, and slammed into an even better one? A dance beat, at that. In a song full of hooks, the turn-on-a-dime changeup is the best hook of all.
- Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman” – Nashville’s phenomenon of the year, Wilson is the first woman to top Billboard’s country singles chart in more than two years, ending a siege of cowboy hat–wearing, Toby Keith–style male blusterers. I guess it took a paean to red-state pride to break a logjam of red-state patriotism-pimping. Country radio is so conservative – even when there isn’t a war on – that new acts often score their breakthrough with a middle-of-the-road ballad. (Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, even Shania Twain, all broke with a ballad.) That’s what makes Wilson’s breakout so gratifying: it’s a barnburner, with a good gimmick. And at least that gimmick ain’t a line dance. Favorite bit: the acute a in “Tanya Tucker.”
- Mario Winans featuring Enya and P.Diddy, “I Don’t Wanna Know” – A critic once compared a mid-’70s pop hit to “a particularly stubborn lap cat [that] will probably never go away.” So too is Winans’s omnipresent ballad, which has been wafting out of radios since mid-spring. At first you don’t notice it; then you’re kind of annoyed by it; then you can’t remember life without it. After she got heavily sampled by the Fugees a decade ago, Enya’s people demanded full-artist credit on Winans’s single, making this possibly the first time someone has been “featured” on a pop hit without recording anything new for it. Who cares? As Sasha Frere-Jones noted in the New Yorker last month, it’s a good sample. Me, I’m more impressed by P. Diddy, who turns in his first non-embarrassing rap. (I didn’t say great.) I even like the line about how he gave his woman “extra cheese.”
- Norah Jones, “Sunrise” – I have a solidly moderate opinion on Snorah. I think the hipster snobs who call her pop’s latest antichrist are just hating on her. Worse, the brunching yuppies who call her music’s savior need to get out more. The problem with Norah isn’t musical, it’s cumulative. Singles are lovely, whole albums lethal – no one should drive or operate heavy machinery while listening to a Norah Jones CD. But Jones includes at least one good single on each album (thank you, iTunes!), and “Sunrise,” with its country-politan lilt, is her best yet. Even if it did come out in the dead of winter, it works fine as the tempo shift for my summer CD.
- Prince, “Cinnamon Girl” – Not just the comeback of his rock sound. Not just his flat-out best single in more than a decade. It’s the slyest, catchiest piece of political commentary this summer, a plea for post-9/11 tolerance that sounds as innocuous on the radio as “Raspberry Beret.” Too bad your radio station isn’t playing it yet. Neither is mine.
- JoJo, “Leave (Get Out)” – If Winans’s single is a lazy lap-cat, JoJo’s is some kind of vermin, a fuzzy mouse you eventually adopt as a pet. I tried, tried to resist, but ohhhh, that damned little guitar-filigree hook. There are so many things to hate about this 13-year-old jailbait: the preening, the pouting, the preternatural melismata. But there’s something wonderfully insidious about “Leave (Get Out)” that I haven’t heard since Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” The lyrics are Disney Channel-friendly but hint at more, without coming off as crass or sick. And let’s give props to a teenybopper who’s kicking her boy to the curb rather than offering to be his slave. I particularly like the insistent way she shrieks “Geeeeeeeet Oooooouuuut!!!!” after the bridge.
- Scissor Sisters, “Take Your Mama” – Not Elton, but an incredible facsimile. What does a campy New York–based club act have to do to sell some records? Simple – the last resort of any unwanted U.S. act: top the charts in England. It was a canny move, since the Brits still appreciate their slap-happy pop. It’s hard to pay homage to an artist without blatantly ripping him off, but “Take Your Mama” gets the sound of vintage 1973 Elton John exactly right while being its own discrete tune. U.S. radio is so allergic to any song that doesn’t have a hip-hop beat riding underneath it that Scissor Sisters will have an uphill battle to break through here. But they’ve got an even more eye-popping single for the followup, a disco cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortbly Numb.”
- Faithless, “Mass Destruction” – It took until summer, but someone finally recorded an anti-Bush single that’s also catchy. Who would have guessed it would come from a British dance-rock act that’s never scored a U.S. hit? Yet there it is: round-the-clock video play on MTV, airplay kicking in on top 40 radio. Sure, “Mass Destruction” is rhythmically infectious, riding atop a horn-inflected, start-stop beat, one part Chumbawamba to two parts Fatboy Slim. But the lyrics, thanks to the blunt-damaged vocal delivery of Maxi Jazz, are what you can’t get out of your head: “Whether Halliburton, Enron or anyone/Greed is a weapon of mass destruction.” Those of you who enjoyed Tricky back in 1995 and wished he might break through on the radio, this is as close as you’ll get.
- Yellowcard, “Ocean Avenue” – Punk-pop seems to produce one irresistible single every year, and this Florida band stumbled onto this year’s model. It’s now a radio staple, but I fell for “Ocean Avenue” last spring after MTV started pumping the video, a cheeky homage to Run Lola Run in which lead singer Ryan Key runs through three versions of a videogame-like obstacle course. I was hooked. Plus, hey, violins! How many punk bands have a violinist?
- Blink-182, “I Miss You” – I like the Cure’s new single, but I’m still even more floored by Blink’s eerily perfect Cure homage on this song. Gothic guitars, dewy keyboards, shuffling beat – all they lack is white makeup and Edward Scissorhands hair. Tom Delonge doesn’t sound like Robert Smith – he’s whiny, not Euro-whiny – but he does turn in his most emo performance ever, a shameless wimpy-boy plea that would have sounded right at home on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Blink asked Smith to chip in on their last album, and I was stunned when I found out this wasn’t the one he co-wrote. Blink did the Cure sound this year better than Smith himself.
- OutKast, “Roses” – We all love “Hey Ya!” but let’s face it, we’re all kind of sick of it, too. “Hey Ya!” was the Christmas sweater that we had to put away in the closet by spring. Sure, you love it, but so does Dad and Grandma and your boss and the DJ at that wedding you went to last weekend. Enough! Anyway, I’m gratified that OutKast scored a legitimate followup hit after the “Hey Ya!”/”The Way You Move” juggernaut. My guess is they picked “Roses” not only because it’s catchy, but also because it’s one of the few songs on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below on which both Dre and Big Boi appear. It’d be a headache to try to promote competing singles by the two of them again.
- J-Kwon, “Tipsy” – This is the one song that Emily actually requested, which is sort of funny until you understand that the only place she hears current music these days is the gym. Of course “Tipsy,” with its thudding beat and wicked digital-snare hook, sounds great coming out of a predominantly black Brooklyn sports club. But it rocks the suburbs, too. We were in Wayne this past weekend, borrowing Emily’s Mum’s Altima, and…tru nuff, playa – “Tipsy” boomed out of the sound system, turning Sara’s sensible wheels, momentarily, into a pimp-mobile.
- Coheed and Cambria, “A Favor House Atlantic” – Emo? Punk? Metal? Gotta be metal – no act comes up with album titles like In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 unless they’ve absorbed a lot of Queensrÿche. I got hooked on Coheed and Cambria when the “Favor House” video suddenly started getting a lot of overnight MTV play (Sony picked the band up just a couple of months ago). The clip, a sendup of cheap early-’80s videos a la Loverboy, is a gas, but it’s the song’s relentless melody and adenoidal vocals that suckered me.
- Jay-Z, “99 Problems” – The year’s other great single, “99 Problems” is the only song on Jigga’s Black Album that wasn’t improved on Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. I mean, I loved The Grey Album, and at first I included that version of this song, which employs the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” But…damn: no one tops producer Rick Rubin in full-on metal mode. I had to stick with the original. The brain-melting guitar hook Rubin uses here is as good as anything he unearthed for the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill, and Jay is a better rapper than Ad-Rock. “99 Problems” will go down as one of 2004’s best on the strength of Rubin, but also for Jay’s hilarious Driving While Black anecdote in the second verse: “Am I under arrest, or should I guess some more?/Well, you wuz doin’ 55 in a 54….”
- Snow Patrol, “Spitting Games” – There’s an excellent column in Salon called “Wednesday Morning Download,” in which a musician/critic named Thomas Bartlett suggests good, often underappreciated songs that can be downloaded (legally) from iTunes or even for free. That’s how I discovered Snow Patrol, an Irish band with a muscular indie-rock sound. It’s perverse to include a band with such a wintry name on this mix, but “Spitting Games” has a driving, top-down-wind-blowing rhythm that just kind of worked here.
- Jet, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” – This is a total cheat, because while “Be My Girl” was a huge hit, that was nearly six months ago, and Jet has already been through a followup hit, “Cold Hard Bitch,” by now. But my local Top 40 station is still playing “Be My Girl” like it came out five minutes ago, and I have a feeling it will be the song for which Jet is remembered long after the album fades. Another Emily’s-mom story: she asked for this CD and has been riding around in the car to it since June. I can’t get her to admit to singing along.
- Gary Jules, “Mad World” – The oldest song on here, in more ways than one: “Mad World” is an early, dancey Tears for Fears song (pre–Songs from the Big Chair) remade as a haunting dirge by obscure folkie Jules for the soundtrack of 2001’s Donnie Darko. Three years later, that flop movie is now a cult hit, and that obscure folkie now has a radio hit, as the movie returns to theaters. Jules will probably never be on the radio again – little of his music sounds like this – but “Mad World” deserved to break out, regardless of the movie. It stops you dead when you hear it.
- Nellie McKay, “I Wanna Get Married” – Sigh. What to make of this precocious little smartass? I find her album, the much-praised Get Away from Me, alternately charming and maddening, and McKay herself has the biggest misbegotten ego since Terence Trent D’Arby. (Emily can’t stand this CD, and when I played it at a housewarming tea last April one of our guests proclaimed it “totally annoying.”) But there are at least a half-dozen good songs on Get Away from Me, and this one, a sardonic smoky-jazz ode to wifehood, is about the best, which may explain why McKay has been appearing on TV talk shows to perform it for the past several months. “I Wanna Get Married” is cleverly mistitled, as it’s not about a wedding, as most such songs are, but about the “enervating” experience of marriage itself. Just the thing to finish a CD I give to my fiancee three months before she walks up the aisle. Good luck, girlfriend!