A year-end singles list is particularly challenging compared to an albums list, for the simple fact that everyone knows what an album is; what constitutes a “single” is a whole complex mess. Does it have to have a video? A download from the band’s website? A commercial single? Do commercial singles even matter in this day of digital downloading? It’s questions like these which have led several writers, bloggers and websites to change from a singles list to a favourite tracks list, opening it up to any song produced during the year.
I’m not going to do that, if only because I know that a “favourite tracks” list would end up being the sort of thing that only I would like, and that few of my readers would understand. No, I’m sticking to singles – flawed a process as that might be – because there’s something to be said about the universality of popular music, about those tracks that stretch out beyond the confines of the album and are put out there for all the world to consume, to contemplate, and to rock out to (in fact, there’s a few fantastic singles that I have left off this list because, for me, they’re far too connected to their parent album). Each of these tracks eagerly asks for a place in the soundtrack to your life. And for their ambition, I recognize them here today.
There are a few solid contenders, but First Impressions of Earth might be my choice for most disappointing album of the year. Considering that Room on Fire is one of my personal favourites, the too-loud, overproduced and underwritten schlock that filled most of its follow-up was hardly impressive and largely forgettable. But “Heart in a Cage” is worth remembering – a great vocal hook, a killer guitar riff and a fistful of energy to boot.
Originally this was just out of the running for my list, but then I saw JT’s fantastic performance of the track on SNL last month and was reminded of how great it is. Sure, the synth hook is great, but the more I hear the track it’s Timberlake’s vocals that take centre-stage, a note-perfect falsetto that just oozes awesomeness. Chris Rock has a routine where he talks about the debate during the 1980s over who was better: Prince or Michael Jackson. Perhaps Timberlake is the consensus candidate for our time.
Who knew the Scottish could be so pretty? Tracyanne Campbell sings her heart out on this track from the album of the same name, backed by a blissful alt-pop jangle. It’s really tough to find anything witty or profound to say about this track, because it sounds so wonderfully effortless. Gorgeous.
The weekly free download slot on iTunes has to be one of the most coveted pieces of online real estate these days, used to great effect by Sloan in releasing the first single from Never Hear the End of It (we’ll come back to that album on Wednesday). It’s the perfect introduction into how wonderfully remedied the new Sloan is: it’s a Jay song (not Patrick or Chris), it’s got a great piano riff, and best of all, it doesn’t sound anything like Cheap Trick.
“When the moon is round and full / gonna teach you tricks that will blow your mongrel mind” might be the best line I’ve heard all year. Easily the most accessible TVotR track to date, “Wolf Like Me” is an intense piece of proto-punk, based off a blistering guitar riff and passionate, frantic vocals. And then, out of nowhere, the bridge hits, the whole thing slows down and the song becomes another monster entirely. It’s the soul at the wolf’s core, and worth the price of admission by itself.
While Americans got the hip-hop of “Promiscuous,” the British had “Maneater” as their lead single from Loose and promptly sent it to the top of the charts. As is often the case, the British were right – this is the far superior piece of work, with the chorus of the year that makes you forget that Hall and Oates ever had a song with the same title.
A blogger favourite this year, I previously described Band of Horses a band that does almost nothing truly original or groundbreaking, but does it very, very well. “The Funeral” is their debut album’s centerpiece, a pretty guitar riff that explodes into a sickeningly-sincere fist-pumping hook made even better by vocals that sound like they’re about to break at any moment.
The first time I heard this song I intensely disliked it; the same with the second, third and fourth time. Then, around the fifth listen, something changed in me and I began to hear things a little different. What I thought was a Springsteen ripoff sounded more like Springsteen homage. What I thought were wussy vocals sounded more sincere and powerful (something that can’t be said for the rest of Sam’s Town). The guitars that I found predictable sounded exhilarating. And here it is, number three on my singles list. I still have no idea how in the hell this all happened.
While I read about the collaboration between Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse sometime early in 2006, the first person to play me this song was Ian, a fellow PR student who whose musical preferences also include Nickelback. If I ever needed proof that Gnarls Barkley had a crossover hit on their hands, there it was. Soon enough, millions of people who had never even heard of Goodie Mob and never listened to The Gray Album or Demon Days were cranking this out their speakers all summer long. It was easily this year’s “Hey Ya” – the hip hop-influenced pop song that your bratty little sister and your middle-class mom were both digging in 2006.
Surprised? I know I am. Unlike the last couple of years, where my top single was a breakthrough hit (“Float On” in 2004 and “Since U Been Gone” last year), here I’ve gone for something a little more underrated, and certainly underappreciated. In many ways, the process of coming to this surprise conclusion echoed last month’s Liberal leadership convention: after spending most of my time debating between several qualified, prominent frontrunners, my gaze went a little further down my list to a song that perhaps I hadn’t given a fair shake to, and voila: “Turn Into” becomes my Stéphane Dion.
I’m tempted to call this a choice for posterity’s sake; if I look back at this list in 10 years, something tells me that “Turn Into” will age the best, its soaring romanticism resonating far beyond the shelf life of some of the more popular songs on this list. But that would be a cop-out, and a crappy way to choose my top single. No, “Turn Into” is brilliant today, every bit the proper follow-up to “Maps” and while more traditional in its arrangement, there’s something about it that hits almost as hard, be it the keys in the bridge or Nick Zimmer’s solo that barely stays on key. This is popular music at its finest – accessible, immediate and powerful. And my single of the year.