With a little less than half the year remaining, it seemed like a good time to try and launch a preemptive strike in the Top Ten Wars; what I didn’t realize was how hard making this list was going to be. It’s been a great year for albums, but great radio singles, hot downloads, and three-minute masterpieces have been few and far between. It also seemed important, for some reason, to not have this list just be a “best track from all the good albums” list, which is hard not to do. So, here’s what I’ve come up with: the ten best songs, just songs, so far this year. I’m sure I missed something, but post it in the comments, don’t call me at home.
10. Li’l Mama – “Lip Gloss” (from the forthcoming album Voice of the Young People on Jive) (YouTube, MySpace, iTunes)
The teen rap sensation (born Niatia Kirkland in Brooklyn) may have aimed her talent at this most, uh, superficial of topics, but the defiant shouts of “what you know ’bout me?” prove she’s no lightweight. The backing track, just a stomp and a handclap, is somehow just as infectious as her rhymes: “The boys really like it, the girls don’t speak / They rollin’ they eyes, ‘cuz they lip gloss cheap.”
9. Of Montreal – “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” (from Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? on Polyvinyl) (MySpace, iTunes)
This glammy, poppy Georgia band backs up their silliness with incredibly strong songwriting. “Curse,” despite its unwieldy title, comes off like the Flaming Lips covering “Kids in America:” undeniably weird, but instantly accessible. Singer Kevin Barnes repeats “come on, chemicals” in the chorus, but apparently doesn’t mean drugs, he means the natural chemicals in your brain, making the lyrics oddly fatalistic.
8. DJ Khaled – “We Takin’ Over” (from We the Best on Koch/Terror Squad) (YouTube, MySpace, iTunes)
A song whose chorus (“we takin’ over, one city at a time”) also exists as its manifesto, considering it features every rapper of the moment, from chart-toppers Akon and T.I. to stoner Lil’ Wayne. With a beat similar to Akon’s “Smack That,” Palestinian-American Khaled somehow makes a track that feels less frivolous (with its minor chord arpeggios sounding out like alarms) but just as much fun.
7. Amy Winehouse – “Rehab” (from Back to Black on Universal) (YouTube, MySpace, iTunes)
Okay, okay. Yes, this came out last year, the album was already certified platinum in the UK by the end of the 2006. However, it didn’t get an official release in the US until March, plus the song is currently #9 on the Billboard Top 10, and besides, I didn’t like it as much then as I do now. So, nyah. The song’s retro novelty seems balanced by flawless musicianship and an utterly contemporary subject matter; if it keeps going like this, we have a contender for song of the summer, and potentially, tour of the fall.
6. The White Stripes – “Icky Thump” (from Icky Thump on Warner Bros.) (YouTube, MySpace, iTunes)
Like Led Zeppelin filtered through an AM radio and reconstituted south of the border, “Thump” has none of the irresistible hook-based propulsion of “Seven Nation Army,” but doesn’t suffer for it. Despite winding around vintage synth solos and tempo changes, it grabs you and won’t let go. Add a “you tell ’em, Jack” political edge with lyrics about the hypocrisy of the current immigration “debate” (and a video that makes the connection explicit), and the dynamic duo have never been more relevant.
5. The Arcade Fire – “Intervention” (from Neon Bible on Merge)
Opening with the biggest, churchiest organ sound in the history of Canada, “Intervention” starts like a hymn, but then Win Butler and crew proceed to rip up the hymnal with bitter, angry lyrics: “Workin’ for the church / while your family dies.” Like all great Arcade Fire tracks, it’s exhilerating and emotional; the political subtext seems to be a newfound focus for this most personal of bands.
4. M.I.A. – “Boyz” (from the forthcoming Kala on Interscope) (MySpace)
This just barely came out, so I’m going out on a limb by putting it this high, I guess, but how can you resist its Gary Glitter-via-Trinidad triple-time beat? Produced by current UK remix hero Switch, “Boyz” sounds like nothing either of them have done before, more organic than electro. The chorus (an oddly rearranged chant of “how many boys there?”) gives way to lyrics that trip from the personal into the political, a line M.I.A. has always crossed effortlessly: “How many no money boyz are rowdy / How many start a war?”
3. Timbaland feat. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake – “Give It To Me” (from Shock Value on Blackground/Interscope) (MySpace, iTunes)
Pitchfork already put it best, when the track leaked back in ’06, calling it a “miracle of bankable avant-gardism.” While Timbo’s album didn’t quite deliver on that promise, this single combines both the sultriness of “Promiscuous” with the winking swagger of “SexyBack:” “When you see us in the club / We’ll be acting real nice.” I sure hope so.
2. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends” (from Sound of Silver on DFA)
While Silver has multiple brilliant moments (the defiant “North American Scum,” the grief-stricken “Someone Great”), “Friends” seems to capture the point of the album better than any of them. New York’s finest electro auteur James Murphy puts autobiographical lyrics over a two-chord riff reminiscent of New Order, or maybe Joy Division, and the result is gripping and cathartic, ending with a cry of “where are your friends tonight?” Well, I like to think the people on the TV are my friends.
1. Rihanna – “Umbrella” (from Good Girl Gone Bad on Island/Def Jam) (YouTube, really annoying MySpace page, iTunes)
“Umbrella” was reportedly shopped around to multiple labels by the songwriter before landing on Universal; knowing it had to squirm its way through the bowels of the music industry before finding its way to Rihanna doesn’t lessen the song’s majesty one bit. Like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” the track seems to exist above genre: it’s R&B, rock, dance. Most imporantly, it does what all great pop music does: grabs your heartstrings, just a little, and lifts you up. Rolling Stone is calling it the “dumbest vaginal metaphor since ‘Sugar Walls’,” but I don’t believe them—sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella.