- Every three to five years, we’re blessed with a great year for singles – 1997 was one, and 2005 is shaping up to be another.
Every Tuesday, I get an e-mail from Apple advertising the newest additions to the iTunes Music Store. My favorite part of the e-mail isn’t the list of new releases – it’s the part at the bottom called “Just Added,” which is all older songs, the ones Apple just got the rights to distribute. Grouped only by the vagaries of record-label wrangling, the selections in “Just Added” are wonderfully random.
Among the odd additions to iTunes a couple of months ago was White Town’s long-forgotten 1997 album Women in Technology, including its lone Top 40 hit, “Your Woman.” I hadn’t heard it in years, but back in the day I loved “Your Woman,” with its kooky Star Wars/Empire March-on-Casio hook.
“Your Woman” was also the centerpiece of a mix I made back then called Summer 97, the first in a series of mixes I’ve been making annually ever since. The 2004 edition was “released” (to, um…my wife and our friends) last August.
After blowing 99 cents at iTunes to buy “Your Woman,” I was inspired to dig out the original track listing for Summer 97 from the depths of my hard drive. What a great mix! And I deserve only a fraction of the credit – 1997 just happened to be a great year for music in general and singles in particular. If you’re curious, I’ve uploaded Summer 97 to the iTunes store, as an iMix (if you have installed iTunes on your PC, the link should automatically launch iTunes and jump to the mix).
Poised at the turning point between the waning of grunge and the beginning of late-’90s megapop, 1997 is the last year I can recall that produced both great albums (OK Computer, If You’re Feeling Sinister, Supa Dupa Fly, Life After Death, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Buena Vista Social Club, Either/Or, Dig Me Out) and great singles. There were lots of good songs from 1996 albums still hanging around: Sublime’s “What I Got,” OMC’s “How Bizarre,” Luscious Jackson’s “Naked Eye.” They all made my Summer mix, along with “MMMBop,” “The Distance” and, natch, “Your Woman” – and that tape only covered the first half of 1997, since I made it in late spring. So I didn’t even catch great second-half ‘97 hits like “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” “Tubthumping,” “Brimful of Asha,” “Walking on the Sun” or “It’s All About the Benjamins.” You know it’s a great singles year when you could’ve divided the year in half and filled two mix tapes.
Great music years are happy accidents. Theories abound, but no one knows quite why the stars align in any particular year and produce a surfeit of memorable songs. I would put 1997 on the shelf next to 1977, 1984 and 1991 among all-time great music years.
In more recent times, I would place 2001 (”Get Ur Freak On,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Hash Pipe,” “Yellow,” “Fallin’,” “Family Affair,” “Catch the Sun”) in the pantheon, at least for singles (great album years are getting rarer all the time). If I’m feeling generous, maybe 2003 would make the cut – the best singles that year were amazing (”Crazy in Love,” “Hey Ya!” “Seven Nation Army,” “Stacy’s Mom,” “Beautiful,” “PDA,” “Maps”), but there was a lot of schlock on the radio, too.
It’s too soon to say, but 2005 is shaping up as another potentially great singles year. There are already a number of good signs.
New artists with good albums but totally great singles. The Kaiser Chiefs’ Employment is a three-to-three and a half-star album at best, but “I Predict a Riot” is a killer first single. The Game is not as charismatic a rapper as his mentor “Fitty Cent,” but damned if “How We Do” didn’t dominate my brain in January – and the followup, “Hate It or Love It,” is even better. The much-debated debut by M.I.A., Arular, already spawned a great indie hit with “Galang” and contains other songs nearly as catchy. And the Bloc Party’s excellent debut album Silent Alarm boasts the spine-tingling single “Like Eating Glass.”
Old albums belatedly producing their best singles. There are second, third or even fourth singles on the charts right now from CDs that came out in 2004 or even 2003. The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” for example – to think I expected these guys to have no followup single! Or Interpol’s “Evil,” finally giving them a (much-deserved) radio hit. Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” owned the radio all winter, and now their “Holiday” is on the march. Alicia Keys’s late-blooming “Karma” is the fourth single from an album that dropped two Christmases ago, but it gives her a much-needed uptempo hit after a string of moody ballads. Equally ancient, Jet’s McCartneyesque “Look What You’ve Done” is from a 2003 album and gets played on Z100 New York almost as much as Usher. And as for Usher, I happen to prefer his bumpin’ “Caught Up” to any of the three megahits he banged out last summer.
People you normally hate with enticing songs. What is it about that twerp Rob Thomas that his Matchbox 20 hits are so thudding and obvious, but his stuff away from the group is so spry? I had to reevaluate the guy back in ‘99 when he cowrote Santana’s slinky megasmash “Smooth.” Now, after five more years of schlock with M20, he’s got a solo album coming out, and damned if the first single, “Lonely No More,” isn’t irresistible. Same goes for J.Lo, who still couldn’t sing her way through an American Idol tryout but spun off an unusually smart single this winter with the Rich Harrison production “Get Right” (more on him in a minute). Finally, Will Smith’s music career jumped the shark a decade ago, but I must confess that the beat of “Switch,” his latest jiggy anthem, sucks me in every time (even if his rapping remains third-rate).
But the hallmark of a potentially great singles year is when you have not one, not two, but three legitimate candidates for single of the year before it’s even one-third over. At least one of these songs could live on, beyond 2005, as a radio classic.
- Amerie’s “1 Thing” – Though not as prolific as the Neptunes or Kanye West, writer/producer Rich Harrison is emerging as a hip-hop wunderkind by combining the Neptunes’ pop sense with West’s knack for a killer R&B sample. In 2003, Harrison brought you Beyoncé’s unstoppable “Crazy in Love,” with that killer Chi-Lites horn bit. Late last year, he dug up another great horn sample for J.Lo’s aforementioned “Get Right.” But he saved his coup de grace for this debut single by Amerie, storming into the top 10 just last week. Amerie’s album isn’t even out yet, but the song debuted over the closing credits of the movie Hitch (you can download it from iTunes). Harrison’s “Crazy in Love” sample was more immediate and instantly catchy; but the “1 Thing” sample, of an offhand drum-fill by veteran funk band the Meters, is so ingenious you’re amazed anyone could even conceive it as a hook. (Kelefa Sanneh at The New York Times did a better job deconstructing the song than I could.) Amerie’s jittery vocal is more piercing than smooth, but her excitement – “It’s THIS one THING that’s got me trippin’!” – is what puts the song over. It’s hard to call such a deliriously frothy song a classic, but “Crazy in Love” has had longer legs than anyone might have guessed, and “1 Thing” is, in a way, smarter.
- Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” – In December, when I first heard it, I think I had the same reaction so many indie-rock fans had; meekly, I said to myself, “Gee…I think I like this.” By January, I shared it with my wife, and she liked it too. No, we loved it, actually. By February and March, it seemed the whole damned world had “come out” as a fan of The Song: Matador Records founder Gerard Cosloy; Pharamacists frontman Ted Leo, who even recorded a cover of it; a slew of ornery rock critics. It’s not like Swedish teen-pop überproducer Max Martin has never produced a good song – the Martin-produced “I Want It That Way” from the Backstreet Boys is one of the few keepers of the misbegotten boy-band era. But there was nothing, nothing in his or Clarkson’s respective pasts to suggest they could produce as smart, authentic-sounding and tough-minded a rock song as “Since U Been Gone.” Written by songsmith Mark Sandberg, the lyric is wholly brilliant, dropping in on the girl’s story in medias res with a confiding, “Here’s the thing….” The svengalis are critical to the finished product, but mad props go to Clarkson (or, as I call her, Puddin’, after a critic I read who called her “pudding-faced” when she won American Idol in 2002). The line after the bridge when she takes “I’m so moving ON!” up an octave is a full-on goose-pimple moment – the pop equivalent of Kurt Cobain’s final “Smells Like Teen Spirit” scream.
- John Legend’s “Ordinary People” – It’s hard to admit a Kelly Clarkson single gives you chills, but shouldn’t I also be embarrassed that an R&B ballad makes me cry? “Ordinary People” is that good – Marvin Gaye–good, Al Green–good – and it’s a hit, but if it were up to me, it’d be Number One on every chart in Billboard. Legend is a husky-voiced singer – think Brian McKnight with less schmaltz and with Stevie Wonder’s phrasing – who made his debut singing backup on Kanye West’s The College Dropout; auspiciously, he sang the hook on the great “Jesus Walks.” West had a big hand in Legend’s debut album, but “Ordinary People” is unlike any of his previous prodcutions. With truly great songs, you remember where you were when you first heard them: I had my iPod on while walking through Park Slope one weekday afternoon, and the song – nothing but piano and Legend’s forceful voice – nearly stopped me cold. The song’s simplicity is moving enough, but it’s the lyric that sneaks up on you. Its first verses could be from any devotional slow-jam (”This ain’t the honeymoon/Past the infatuation phase”), but don’t be fooled: it’s a Smoove B song for the un-smooth. By the chorus, “Ordinary People” has evolved away from sex, from sentiment, even from self-pity. Like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” it’s about love amid failure: “We’re just ordinary people/We don’t know which way to go…Maybe we should take it slow.” How many modern pop songs – in this age of sexual demands and popular self-aggrandizement – are about this? How many songs empathize with you that intimately? Usually, when 30something critics like me love a song, they praise it by calling it “adult,” which to me places it in a Starbucks/Norah Jones ghetto. “Ordinary People” is great because it’s about someone who’s just become an adult – the hard way, through betrayal and forgiveness – and is shocked at how much it hurts; his wisdom is hard-won, but his youthful optimism is undimmed. By the time the bridge rolls around – ”Maybe we’ll live and learn/Maybe we’ll crash and burn” – I’m turning away and pretending I’ve got something in my eye.
Now that my wife has an iPod of her own, I haven’t figured out when or how I’m going to give her my Summer 2005 compilation; you can’t wrap an iTunes mix. This much I do know: I have all the great songs I need for it already.