The best 30 singles of 2006
With the rise of MP3 blogs such as this one here and radio's decline, singles seem to be less important than ever. Bad albums can't be hidden as easily behind one or two strong songs. People seem less likely to buy imports when a lot of the B-sides can be tracked down and downloaded in a few swift clicks. Still, the single remains a revealing art, as it has to compete all the harder to grab ears in an oversaturated market. It doesn't define an album anymore so much as represent it, like a barker inviting you to come into the tent. And encouragingly, 2006 still had a lot of very strong material to choose from. Here are my picks for the best of the best:
30) "Black Sweat" - Prince
For all the critical heavy breathing over Justin Timberlake, he still sounds too much like a Prince pastiche for my taste. Unfortunately, for way too many years, so did Prince. His unilaterally funky reign in the '80s whimpered out with weirdness and self-indulgence in the '90s. It seemed like the purple reign was no more than a drizzle. But finally, here he is reemerging in full force, with his most necessary single in over a decade.
29) "Prangin' Out" - The Streets
On The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, Mike Skinner made the uneasy transition from hungover nobody to coked-up celebrity. It didn't always pan out and I missed his underdog POV, but among all the "Memento Mori" missteps, there were still some great moments lurking. Exhibit A: On "Prangin' Out," documenting some very low lows, Skinner calls upon his dark humor to address the hell of too much success. "This time, I'm drying my eyes and a fuckin' nosebleed" sums it all up rather brilliantly in one (white) line.
* MP3: "Prangin' Out" - The Streets from The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living [Buy it]
28) "What You Know" - T.I.
While I'm turned off by a lot of rappers' swagger, T.I. earns every moment of bombast here. Driven by great production and symphonically triumphant strings, the music proves just as assertive and dominating as the rapping it's scoring. "What You Know" is one of the best pump-up, ride-out songs in a long time, demanding to be thumped from Jeep stereos and urban boomboxes everywhere.
27) "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)" - El Perro Del Mar
As the opening swells of this song trickle out, I'm seeing two fat-cheeked cherubs float down on cottony wings. They're lifting me through the air, up through the clouds and off into the firmaments. "Heavenly" is an adjective thrown around too lightly, but it actually applies here. With Sarah Assbring's bouncy melodies and light voice, the brassy instrumentation and the ethereal backup singers, even St. Peter would have to be humming along.
* MP3: "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)" - El Perro Del Mar from El Perro Del Mar [Buy it]
26) "Ring The Alarm" - Beyoncé
WTF? So now she's leisurely skiing on two crocodiles in a weirdo bikini and stilettos? Of all the pop divas, Beyoncé is the one who's taking the weirdest, most daring chances ("Deja Vu" aside) and making the most adventurous pop as a result. "Ring The Alarm" tallied up a lot of hate from people who wanted more retreads, but even with its clear Kelis cribbing, Beyoncé soldiered on toward something more idiosyncratic.
25) "The Blues Are Still Blue" - Belle & Sebastian
Ostensibly a song about lingering sadness, "The Blues Are Still Blue" is both the diagnosis and the cure. It's indie pop at its finest, a four-minute sliver of joy so artfully composed it seems almost scientific. Rounding out the corners of the underrated Dear Catastrophe Waitress, this song marks yet another exciting leap forward for a band that could've easily stood still.
* MP3: "The Blues Are Still Blue" - Belle & Sebastian from The Life Pursuit [Buy it]
24) "Dead Funny" - Archie Bronson Outfit
Sometimes you want to be moved; sometimes you just want to move. The Archie Bronson Outfit, three Wiltshire art-school rockers, prefer to address the latter impulse and I didn't mind a bit. Their pop-blues-rock amalgam "Dead Funny" ended up being one of my most-played songs of the year, offering a fun, hook-rich and potentially naughty reprieve from 2006's more serious fare.
* MP3: "Dead Funny" - Archie Bronson Outfit from Derdang Derdang [Buy it]
23) "Young Bride" - Midlake
Who else was singing about snowshoes, hunters and doing the polonaise this year? Or for that matter, any year since Otto von Bismarck's reign. While many were competing to see who could sound the most futuristic, Midlake somehow managed to fuse 1970s aesthetics with 19th century subjects. It's a brave, bizarre conceit that especially succeeded here, held together by those energetically sad violins and Tim Smith's graceful tenor.
* MP3: "Young Bride" - Midlake from The Trials of Van Occupanther [Buy it]
22) "Fever" - Rhymefest
Rhymefest's "Fever" is pretty much a clearinghouse for puns. Che Smith's flow is hot, the beat is infectious, it'll have other rappers sweating, etc. But groan-inducing reviews aside, the fact remains that all of that is essentially true. "Fever" is indeed the dancefloor scorcher its title promises, and more importantly, it knows it.
21) "The President's Dead" - Okkervil River
Like Bobby but actually enjoyable, "The President's Dead" imagines the effects of a larger-than-life political assassination on ordinary lives. It sounds respectable and mournful enough until it skirts up to the two-minute mark. It's then when Will Sheff's grief turns seismic, becoming larger than the loss of just one man. Suddenly, it's about a vulnerable nation and its vulnerable people, who "with three shots to the head," finally comprehend their own powerlessness.
* MP3: "The President's Dead" - Okkervil River from The President's Dead 12" [Buy it]
20) "Lived In Bars" - Cat Power
Even before we knew the extent of Chan Marshall's illness, it was apparent in her music. Her songs had too intimate a knowledge of ache, of damage. Her performances were too haphazard to be dismissed. "Lived In Bars" is certainly one of her most personal songs ever as well as one of the saddest. But what's new here and what's particularly encouraging is that she's starting to use the past tense now.
* MP3: "Lived In Bars" - Cat Power from The Greatest [Buy it]
19) "Once And Never Again" - The Long Blondes
When the Long Blondes infiltrate these shores, they could easily become the next big thing. They absolutely deserve to, with a debut so assured it plays more like a career-capping greatest hits collection. Honestly, the band could've released almost any song on Someone To Drive You Home and I would've found a spot for it on this list. But this year, they decided on singling out "Once and Never Again," Kate Jackson's rockingly empathetic advice to a nineteen-year-old. Luckily enough for me, that just happens to be one of their best.
18) "When You Wasn't Famous" - The Streets
* MP3: "When You Wasn't Famous" - The Streets from The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living [Buy it]
17) "In The Morning" - Junior Boys ft. Andi Tomi
One day, I'd like to film a version of Lolita set in space, where Humbert Humbert is an effete astronaut and little Dolores Haze is an alien from some faraway galaxy. He tries to seduce her with offers of dehydrated ice cream and tales of a perverse pebble called Earth. When this dream project gets greenlit, the end credits music should be a no-brainer. With its spacy, electro beats, its lusty melodies and skittering vocals, "In The Morning" is the funkified future here and now.
* MP3: "In The Morning" - Junior Boys ft. Andi Tomi from So This Is Goodbye [Buy it]
16) "Where It Started At (NY)" - Hi-Tek ft. Dion, Jadakiss, Papoose, Talib Kweli and Raekwon
Admittedly, a large part of why I love this song is because New York is also where I started at. The shoutouts to the "Staten Ferry" and the D train get me every time. But in my attempt at objectivity, I'll also point out the sweet Andy Williams sample, the sharp, instructive contrasts between the four rappers' styles, Hi-Tek's sophisticated production, and a strong chorus that holds it all together like the bridges to the boroughs.
* MP3: "Where It Started At (NY)" - Hi-Tek ft. Dion, Jadakiss, Papoose, Talib Kweli and Raekwon from Hi-Teknology, Vol. 2: The Chip [Buy it]
15) "Young Folks" - Peter, Bjorn and John ft. Victoria Bergsman
God bless the Swedish. They've already given us lingonberry pancakes, Ingmar Bergman and Stockholm Syndrome. But the generosity and talent keep coming in near-staggering volume, with more good music emerging from that country per capita (population: 9.1 million) than anyone could've hoped for. "Young Folks" is only the latest offering in a steady stream of greatness, but it's undeniably fun and sweet and features the best incorporation of whistling since Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
* MP3: "Young Folks" - Peter, Bjorn and John ft. Victoria Bergsman from Writer's Block [Buy it]
14) "Harrowdown Hill" - Thom Yorke
In my mind, The Eraser had its hits and its misses, but "Harrowdown Hill" zeroes in on my favorite aspect of Thom Yorke's songwriting. The man can write political songs in a abstract, obtuse way, but somehow they still connect. There's the unbearable grief of "I Will," where he huddles with his family in a bunker, and his capitalist callout on classics like "Paranoid Android." This new single indicting the British treatment of David Kelly gets a similarly indirect approach and the results are nearly as memorable. Which, for someone of Yorke's stature, is pretty damn memorable.
13) "Cursed Sleep" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
I love Will Oldham's voice so much, creaking and breaking like a dilapidated house, I'm happy to listen to just about anything he records. Even by those all-accepting standards however, I think he's really outdone himself with "Cursed Sleep." It may well be his most impressive single to date, the most fully formed and the most moving. Between the soaring strings, Dawn McCarthy's gentle backup, and yet another dauntingly good vocal contribution by Oldham, it may well also be one of his best songs ever.
* MP3: "Cursed Sleep" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from Cursed Sleep EP [Buy it]
12) "Young Shields" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
* MP3: "Young Shields" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette [Buy it]
11) "Stuntin' Like My Daddy" - Lil Wayne and Birdman
I gave up on listening to the radio ten years ago, but for a few months, I became infatuated with a Bay Area station, WiLD 94.9. It played the usual warmed-over nonsense (Chris Brown, Danity Kane) and a heavy dose of hyphy, but now and then, the DJs would throw in some totally off-kilter mainstream genius. "Stuntin' Like My Daddy" was my favorite song I found on the radio, its lyrical subjects just as stupid as everything else, but sonically it was a wonder. I headed straight to the record store, got myself a copy and refused to listen to anything else for days and days.
* MP3: "Stuntin' Like My Daddy" - Lil Wayne and Birdman from Like Father, Like Son [Buy it]
10) "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)" - The Clipse
This is more of a tank than a song. It rolls over its enemies and doesn't stop to account for the casualties. It shoots fire and lays waste to anything innocent in its path. The drums sound tribal, like war declarations, and the Clipse's brash, confrontional verses don't flinch at all either. The group loves to revel in their antiheroics, even daring to draw Hutu comparisons, but when the song is this powerful, there's no sense resisting.
* MP3: "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)" - The Clipse from Hell Hath No Fury [Buy it]
9) “Bobby Malone Moves Home” - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
Forget needles, cockroaches and gunmen. This may be my greatest nightmare, starkly committed to song. A twentysomething son strikes out on his own, moves away and fails miserably. He gets "a job that makes you crazy/ in a town you won't miss," can't make his rent payments and has to come slinking back home just to get by. Every line ratchets up the pain of it, all the worse when you realize it's his mother that's narrating. Owen Ashworth delivers the message matter-of-factly, like a poker-faced parent, making statements such as, "Your sister agrees you've looked better, son" especially agonizing.
* MP3: "Bobby Malone Moves Home" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette [Buy it]
8) “We Share Our Mother’s Health” - The Knife
Shoving pop through a funhouse mirror, the Knife love to eviscerate the boundaries of what's possible. If they can somehow make something sound more otherworldly, mysterious, exotic or even kinky, they will joyfully do so. "We Share Our Mother's Health" is a prime exhibit of this exhilirating experimentation, with its pogo-stick electronics, Olof Dreijer's near-Gregorian chants and a driving beat that sounds like a tree being chopped down. If everybody was making music like this, human evolution would probably skip forward a few million years.
* MP3: "We Share Our Mother's Health" - The Knife from Silent Shout [Buy it]
7) “Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is The Sport of Now)” - Busdriver
One Busdriver song has more words crammed into it than many albums. That's notable, sure, but what's more impressive is just how novel and necessary his words are. "Kill Your Employer" is the latest proof that Busdriver matches every bit of his rubbery style with substance. Unlike other rapid-tongued rappers, he speeds up his flow not out of gimmickry, but because he has so much pressing news to report and so many subjects to disarm and demolish.
* MP3: "Kill Your Employer" - Busdriver from RoadKillOvercoat [Buy other Busdriver]
6) “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” - Camera Obscura
I'll start blubbering just from that organ intro. But just when it's nearing its crest of sadness, the band rolls in with an upbeat tempo to save the day. It's a common Camera Obscura device, that interplay and overlay of happy and sad, though it's never worked as heartbreakingly and evocatively as on this song. With every album, it seems like this Glaswegian sextet gets a little better and more in control of its sound. But with "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken," they've effectively outdone everything in their catalogue to date by a country mile.
* MP3: "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" - Camera Obscura from Let's Get Out of This Country [Buy it]
5) “Wolf Like Me” - TV On The Radio
4) “Roscoe” - Midlake
* MP3: "Roscoe" - Midlake from The Trials of Van Occupanther [Buy it]
3) “Don’t Feel Right” - The Roots
Something don't feel right, that's for damn sure. But what strikes me as unconscionably incorrect is how little love the Roots have been getting this year. Sure, Game Theory's reviews were very strong, but sales were fickle and their best-of appearances are oddly infrequent. "Don't Feel Right," like the album where it comes from, didn't receive the attention something of its quality should've generated. Considering what a return to form it is, and how much thought Black Thought unloads, the song's scolding chorus starts to sound more like prophecy.
2) “Live With Me” - Massive Attack
There's so much soul bared on this song, it's downright staggering. Soul in the sense of soul music, but also in how naked and desirous Terry Callier lays himself out. I haven't heard this much raw, unfettered need, this potent a fusion of lust and hope and pain, rendered so beautifully anywhere else this year. I can't imagine that I'll hear it again anytime soon.
* MP3: "Live With Me" - Massive Attack from Collected [Buy it]
1) “Rock Bottom Riser” - Smog
I'm not even sure I can explain why this song affects me so deeply. I could point to the melancholy but simple piano, Bill Callahan's exquisitely spare delivery, or the poetic, image-rich lyrics. I could suggest it's some combination of the three. But maybe even more so, it's just that instant, visceral connection we rarely but unimpeachably feel toward particular works of art, a love at first listen, an ecstatic inspiration that can't be quantified or adequately verbalized. I care so much about "Rock Bottom Riser" that I'm already planning for it to be the first song played at my wedding, and if my hypothetical wife disagrees, I'll probably break up with her.
* MP3: "Rock Bottom Riser" - Smog from A River Ain't Too Much To Love [Buy it]