My top songs of 2007

a single dose, good sir?

Here’s what I wrote last year when I struggled with the question of putting a singles list together:

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.

Once again, I seriously considered changing my year-end singles list into something more personal, something that would include album tracks and other releases, but I keep coming back to singles. Perhaps this is some sort of failing attempt to remedy the lack of collective experience in our music consumption, I’m not sure. I have made one minor concession this year: in recognition of the increasing number of blog singles – where record labels send a song around to the major MP3 bloggers as the album’s first taste of the record (and often different than the first commercial single) – I’m also letting these tracks be up for consideration.

Shall we begin?

15. Icky Thump

Icky ThumpThe reason why I love “Icky Thump” is actually the same reason it has its detractors: it’s rather tuneless. The Stripes love to play with pop melodies, sure, but those occasions where they strip them away and just leave the incessant propulsion of Jack’s guitar and Meg’s drums prove some of the most engrossing in their catalogue.

And make no mistake about it: although there’s some good guitar work here, and – more importantly – some intense keyboard riffs, this is Meg’s show. Say what you will about her – the girl’s got a relentless sense of doom in her drumming. The Stripes work best when Jack gives her the responsibility of driving the song along one kick pedal drop and cymbal smash at a time, unremittingly shoving the song towards the next chord change.

Sure, it might be their most unabashed Zeppelin-ripping single yet, but in the year when the arena legends themselves made their comeback, one struggles to think of a better homage.

Watch: “Icky Thump” music video

14. Umbrella

UmbrellaAll summer singles eventually fall in esteem as the leaves change colour. A full season of incessant overplay only makes people forget the pop bliss they felt the first time they heard a song and instead dwell on its ubiquitious, annoying presence in their lives. Put it this way: there’s a reason that neither “Girlfriend” nor “Makes Me Wonder” ended up on this list.

But “Umbrella” has somehow managed to weather the storm, holding onto just enough of its sheen to end up on year-end lists like this one. Perhaps it’s the fact that the song manages to find warmth in cold, industrial synth. Maybe it’s the way that Rihanna sings “rain-in,” a faux-drawl that oozes sex appeal. Or it could be that you can’t even say “umbrella” anymore without someone instinctively following it up with an “ella…ella…hey…hey…hey.”

“Umbrella” isn’t enough to convince me of Rihanna’s worth as an artist, but it’s the pinnacle of her success as a hit-making machine. Keep ‘em comin’, Jay.

Watch: “Umbrella” music video

13. The Underdog

ga ga ga ga gaIt says less about Jon Brion and more about Spoon how different “The Underdog” sounds than the producer’s usual fare. There’s no sparkly keyboards here, nor are there any descending piano triplets. Sure, you get a full blown horn section to add character, but even it sounds surprisingly Spoonified.

The reason? What Spoon bring to the table that’s so lacking in rock and roll these days is swagger. Listen to how the chord changes move slightly off-beat, just enough to pull you into the next bar (musical or otherwise). Note the three-note riff leading to the next line of horns. Or the way that Britt Daniels’ voice cracks as he screams out that survival is unlikely for those who doubt the underdogs.

Underdogs? Spoon? Maybe three albums ago, but today it’s hard to expect anything but excellence from these lads.

Watch: “The Underdog” music video

Take Me To the Riot

let me stayIn an era of dissent, there’s no room for flowery synthesizers. These times require speed and efficiency: strike the drums and bass at once, throw together a makeshit piano riff, and prepare a blistering jangle of guitar for when the barricades come crashing in.

For a band with a tendency to fill every edge of space with sound, “Take Me to the Riot” sounds like a bare-bones reduction of the Stars’ mission statement. Everything’s still here – the heart-on-sleeve politics, the last throes of romantic youth, the collision of the male and female – but it’s been sheared of every last shred of unnecessary filler. Without any sonic safety nets, the band throws themselves into the song, tearing into the chorus with abandon.

On an album that tends to rest on its laurels a little too often, “Take Me to the Riot” is an able demonstration of what happens when a band strips down to its core and finds their essence waiting for them.

Watch: “Take Me To The Riot” music video

Roc Boys

drinks is on the houseSPEECH!

I’m not as gung-ho about American Gangster as a lot of people, but it’s at least good enough to make Jay-Z’s unretirement less like Michael Jordan’s second comeback and a lot more like his first. Best of all is “Roc Boys,” a killer single that stands up with the best in Jigga’s back catalogue.

Sure, it’s another celebration/party anthem from a man who’s made more than enough of them in his career, but by going back to his hustling roots, Jay sounds inspired for the first time in a long time. Rapping about drug wars and fast cars in equal measure, backed with a killer sample from “Make the Road By Walking” by Menehan Street Band, the song ignites from the first note and never lets up.

Mazel Tov to you too, Jay.

Watch: “Roc Boys” music video

Your Love Alone Is Not Enough

Your Love AloneSome purists might balk at the idea, but I’ve always felt that the post-Richey Edwards Manics have been at their best when they stopped trying to be the Richey Edwards Manics and instead embraced their pop sensibilities. Shedding the baggage while keeping the hooks intact, Send Away The Tigers is their best record in years.

“Your Love Alone is Not Enough,” the record’s first single, sums up the album in a concise, Brit-Pop-eriffic package. Sharing vocals with a female counterpart is nothing new for James Dean Bradfield, but every time he does it something magical happens. Here, dueting with Nina Persson of The Cardigans, his voice disappears into hers, leading an androgynous pop monster that manages to consume all jaded hipster cynicism.

Combine all this with a self-referential lyric and, yes, a Nicky Wire vocal cameo, and you’ve got the sound of a band who’s effortlessly found the pop relevancy they’ve been trying to regain for a decade.

Watch: “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough” music video

Australia

Born to, born to multiplyAs glad as I am that the Shins have become this uber-popular indie-esque band, I’ve always been frustrated by how it occurred. Owing much of their success to the Garden State soundtrack, the ubiquitious popularity of that film amongst semi-pretentious college students led every dorm room rat in North America to rush out and proclaim their love of “New Slang” and its host, Oh Inverted World. Never mind the fact that by that point the Shins had already released an infinitely superior follow-up album (Chutes Too Narrow)that only a minority of these new fans bothered to seek out.

I’m guessing that even less paid any attention to “Australia,” the second single from Wincing the Night Away that never seemed to go anywhere despite being one of the best melodies that James Mercer has ever committed to tape. The song’s unbelievable catchiness should speak for itself, but the real secret weapon here is the lyrics. Mercer somehow manages to simultaneously sound like he’s crafting wordplay purely for rhythm’s sake, only to construct a series of brilliant lines about emotional vacancy and the futile quest for feeling. It reads as good as it sounds.

Watch: “Australia” music video

Famous Last Words

I am not afraid to keep on livingThe problem with the quote-unquote “emo” genre is the same concern that befalls teenage drama in general – it always seems self-indulgent with any sort of cognitive distance. Most of the time, it only makes sense if you’re actually living it, breathing it. Those of us who have moved on from those awkwardly emotional years look upon the music of the new generation of teenagers with disassociated apathy: it’s not meant for us.

But then you hear a song like “Famous Last Words” and it all comes rushing back. This is the way that hyperdrama is supposed to sound: not whiny, but impassioned; not sad, but defiantly triumphant in the face of all life’s misery. This is a song so fantastic that it overcame all my biases and preconceptions of the band, their fans and the entire genre, to the point where here it sits amongst indie bands and pop stars alike as one of the defining songs of 2007.

Watch: “Famous Last Words” music video

The Con

I need to be taken downThe secret to cracking “The Con” is all in the vocals. It’s a catchy song, for sure, and Chris Walla’s production adds volumes to the track, but its success comes from the way that Tegan and Sara navigate the tension between sounding like ProTools-produced animatrons and real flesh-and-bone vocalists.

Most of the time, the Quin sisters combine their voices together in an inhuman fusion, with a hint of staccato in every syllable they enunciate. It’s bold and unique, but it only works in contrast to the moments where emotion breaks free, where the song’s raw emotion can no longer be constrained and bursts out through the speakers. “I’m COMING AROUND,” sing the sisters, like a child learning to scream with purpose for the very first time. Sometimes, it’s the little explosions that hurt the hardest.

Watch: “The Con” music video

D.A.N.C.E.

stick to the B.E.A.T.Wanna be startin’ something?

The music video is dying a slow, painful death, but it’s not going down without a fight. Just when most of us had counted it out, the medium sits up from its deathbed, tapes its wrists, and steps into the ring to try to show the world that it still has the power to break a band. Its effort – Jonas & François’ brilliant video-of-the-year clip for Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” – may not be enough to declare the art form fit for further action, but the fact that this once-obscure French electronica duo are now riding a wave of global appeal is a pretty solid little victory.

Fittingly, “D.A.N.C.E.” owes much of its appeal to the legend of music video himself, Mr. Michael Jackson. Not are the song’s vocals clearly inspired by the King of Pop, but check out the namedrops in the lyrics: “ABC,” “P.Y.T.,” “Black of White,” “Working Day and Night,” “Whatever Happens.” Just as the video is a love letter to a medium that has seen better days, so too is the song a briliant celebration of nostalgia for the era of dance-worthy R&B that’s long since departed.

Watch: “D.A.N.C.E.” music video

1,2,3,4

tell me that you love me moreSo who does have the power to break an artist these days? Steve Jobs?

Ever since Moby licensed every track off Play to every brand imaginable, the argument has been made that commercials are the new radio has grown louder, rivaled only by the volume of those opposed to the commercialization of their beloved art form. So where does the stunning success of Feist’s “1234,” which skyrocketed the Canadian indie princess to mainstream attention when featured in this fall’s iPod nano commercials, fit – pro or con for artists licensing their work?

Be still my indie-loving heart, I think it’s pro. By this point everyone knows that “1234” is a stunning piece of pop perfection, but do you think radio would have even touched it? Its main instrument is a banjo. It has a trumpet solo. A backup choir. Oh and lacks a chorus. It’s just weird enough to be rejected by North America’s increasingly conservative radio environment. When an artist has the chance to take part in an advertising campaign that enhances their profile without limiting their brand, why the hell not?

You go girl.

Watch: “1234” music video

Keep the Car Running

every night my dream’s the sameThe Fire put out three brilliant singles this year, any one of which would have been worthy of being on this list. But only one of them was covered by the Foo Fighters live on BBC Radio One. Only one of them made it onto the US Billboard Modern Rock chart. And only one of them brought the band on stage with The Boss himself.

Yes, the awesomely Springsteenian “Keep the Car Running” was a minor sensation for the seven-piece Montreal collective, but the hundreds of spins in my stereo haven’t muted the song’s power. Unlike with Funeral’s mountain range pace of peaks and valleys, “Keep the Car Running” goes only one direction: forward. Its one beautiful, stunning moment of explosion is immediately shoved back into the passenger seat, propelling onwards towards the empty, agnostic night – uncertain of what lies ahead, but terrified of what lingers in the rear view mirror.

Watch: “Keep the Car Running” live on Jonathan Ross

Fake Empire

put a little something in our lemonade and take it with usI’ll be honest – that rule change where I allowed blog singles to count on my list? It was done solely in the interest of one song and one song alone. While the excellent “Mistaken for Strangers” was the first official commercial single from the National’s Boxer, the band smartly chose to pass “Fake Empire” around the blogosphere as the first taste of the album’s moody melodrama.

And what an introduction. Sure, in some ways it’s the record’s oddball – trumpets are hard to come by for the forty minutes that follow – but in the song’s misleadingly simple lyrics sit the album’s entire palette of themes: alienation, urban romance, holding passion together in moments and gasps. With his Cohen-esque rasp, Matt Berninger says so much with so little: “we’re half awake in a fake empire.” He recognizes the emptiness of the evening’s facade but is so desperate to find something real to hold onto that he plays along night after night.

In what might be the most beautiful line of the year, he croons “It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky.” In an era where it seems like everything is falling apart one moment at a time, it’s easy to sympathize.

Watch: “Fake Empire” live on Letterman

Stronger

that’s how long I’ve been on ‘yaI didn’t think it would work.

Actually, scratch that – I was pretty sure it would work, but I had no idea that people would like it. Kanye’s bread and butter has always been in sampling soul music, especially when he takes the vocal hook and raising the pitch until it sounds like chipmunks. So when I heard the news that he would be sampling Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and making it the all-important second single from Graduation, I had this voice in the back of my head that was desperately worried for the prospects of America’s most fascinating pop star.

I need not have worried. The rest of North America clearly heard the same “Stronger” that I did: a killer fusion of Kanye’s self-conscious/self-righteous persona and French electro-pop. In one breath, Kanye is proclaiming his unsurpassed greatness; the next, blaming his drink for his behaviour and completely losing his bravado. He adds just enough extra colour – a synth riff here, a Timbaland drum track there – to accent the robotic hook and create the club anthem of the year. I’m sitting here typing this and still find myself physically unable to keep my head still – like a reflex, “Stronger” demands motion.

Watch: “Stronger” music video

All My Friends

We set controls for the heart of the sunEven though I’ve only been running McNutt Against the Music for about a year and a half now, I’ve been doing up these year-end lists for much, much longer. I’m not quite sure why I enjoy doing them so much. Perhaps I compile them as a token gesture to my long-standing belief that music is not a “live and let live” medium: it demands discussion, debate and dissent. And, clearly, lists.

Some years, it’s a relatively easy process; others, a little difficult. But rarely have I been so absolutely, one hundred percent certain about a choice as I am about this one. Unlike with other lists and other years, I have no doubts lingering in the back of my skull, no worries that I’ll look back at this list in a decade and wonder what I was thinking. You see, I don’t just think that “All My Friends” was the year’s best single – it’s arguably 2007’s defining musical statement.

I didn’t think James Murphy had it in him, frankly. Yes, his band’s first self-titled record was good and hinted at more good things to come, but it gave no inclination towards the sheer greatness that “All My Friends” represents. I distinctly remember the moment I first heard that rolling piano riff on my stereo, casually enticing me to what would follow. What flowed forth was not a dance song, it was not a techno song – hell, it’s not even a rock song. This is pure, unadulterated pop music, filled to every edge with pathos, feeling, nostalgia, regret, heartache, desperation. It bleeds life.

Though the track is a slow burner and ramps up gradually to its climax, all it takes is one listen for it to overpower every other song you’ve heard this year. Oh sure, eventually you’ll become so enthralled with the track that you’ll notice every little detail of its unbelievable build: the ramp-up of the drums, the keyboard riff that grows and grows, the electric guitar that comes in and threatens to blow the whole song apart. And it does all of this with two chords. But like all great pop music, it doesn’t require such intensive study. Even as background music, everything brilliant about “All My Friends” is right there on display, just begging to be heard.

And at the centre of it all is Murphy, who delivers the vocal performance of his career with a lyric that absolutely nails the crisis of growing older in a world that values youth, of dads pining for the days of drugs and discos. In the song’s final moments – the most cathartic sixty seconds of music all year – all the lies come crashing in on one another as Murphy’s cracking voice yells out in empty frustration over and over and over again.

As romantic as it is heartbreaking, as powerful as it is poignant, “All My Friends” is an anthem for misspent days, an anthem one last rush into the blistering night, an anthem for a final grasp at relevancy. It stands alone, unequalled, unparalleled, as the anthem of 2007.

Watch: Okay, so you can watch the quite-excellent music video for “All My Friends,” but the song is done an immense disservice in its edited form. Better to download the MP3 or watch the band perform the song live in Manchester and prepare its permanent slot in the soundtrack to your life.

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