As 2008 approaches its halfway point, signs of life and logic seem to pop out of every nook and cranny of our ever-changing pop culture. The times find our brightest artists embracing a number of musical styles, old and new, blurring the lines between genre definitions. The only sure thing: today’s music is alive and kicking—even if you can’t tell the difference these days between rap and country, US and UK, or Shelby Lynne and Dusty Springfield. Please enjoy this compilation of some of my favorite pop tracks of the year, so far.
1. “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
Nick Cave has always had a way of making a room uncomfortably dark; however, he never made it so easy to dance like a lunatic in that darkness until now. His lyrical imagining of the modern day Lazarus is as eerie and cynical as anything on Murder Ballads (1996), but the band churns out the most bone-grinding groove this side of Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” Cave’s snarling story poetry is as engaging as William Burroughs. Purely inspired.
2. “No Lucifer” by British Sea Power, from Do You Like Rock Music?
Chilly and chilling. This song shows the Cumbria, England, band paying homage to the expansive and palatial sounds of British rock—dare I say Big Country’s The Crossing? It’s as if the fate of the whole world depends on the sounds on this record: “Is that what the future holds? / Kevlar or cherry wood? / Malevolence or good?” Please, British Sea Power; you had me at “Hey you.”
3. “Royal Flush” by Big Boi, from Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
I’m a fan of both Big Boi and Andre 3000. I loved both Speakerboxxx and The Love Below for different reasons. That said, Big Boi spits twelve great bars on this track, then Wu-guest Raekwon spits twelve great bars, but then Dre spits 40 great bars. I’m curious as to why this lopsided performance is the opening track on Big Boi’s first solo album (slated for release in July), but I sure can’t wait to hear more spectacular guest appearances from Andre 3000.
4. “Gasoline” by Sheryl Crow, from Detours
A Mad Max story song by an artist I love to defend to my hipper-than-thou buddies. The year is 2017, and people all over the world are raging against the machine for cheaper fuel. Lyrically, it’s not so subtle and more than a little simplistic, but the Stones-y groove is mighty tasty. Besides, “Gasoline will be free! Will be free! Yeah yeah yeah!” Nice ring to it, dontcha think?
5. “We Weren’t Crazy” by Josh Gracin, from We Weren’t Crazy
We warp into the parallel major for another story song: this time, an autobiographical one by talented, singing, ex-American Idol Marine Josh Gracin. It’s a sweet tale about him and his wife packing up and taking off despite what their folks had to say about it. The hook is infectious; its “mouthful” phrasing is similar in style to his earlier hits (“Nothing to Lose,” “Favorite State of Mind,” etc.). It’s a warm, nostalgic number from one country music’s most talented singers. I should note that I play in his touring band, and my nod to this single is only slightly sycophantic.
6. “Caravan Girl” by Goldfrapp, from Seventh Tree
Ah, the beautiful and mysterious Allison Goldfrapp follows up with another track about running away. Her ethereal voice soars over an orchestra of synthesizers and the relentless chugging of bass. This is the song the radio plays on the highway to heaven. In a word: ecstatic.
7. “How I Live” by Mugzi & B-Slimm, from Sick Wid It Umbrella
The Bay Area’s Hyphy movement lives on through E-40’s Sick Wid It label. Mugzi & B-Slimm, convincing and confident in their swagger, keep it typical with coast-to-coast shout-outs and alpha-male posturing. A wise man should have once said, “the tried and true is tried because it’s true.” I can’t imagine a world where my head won’t nod to “I don’t know about you but I get that cake.” Keep gettin’ it, boys—tastes great.
8. “Breakfast in Bed” by Shelby Lynne, from Just a Little Lovin’
At the beginning of this article, I may have hinted that Shelby Lynne does one helluva Dusty Springfield impression. She might, who knows? But here, she makes a classic song sound absolutely brand new. As a performer, she is an original (always has been), and she delivers something new with each old phrase. Dusty in Memphis is one of my favorite albums, and I’m thrilled to experience its wonderful songs again from a new, equally talented perspective. Ms. Lynne, you can make me breakfast anytime. Bring the band, too.
9. “Woman” by Raheem DeVaughn, Love Behind the Melody
Grammy-nominated R&B from this young Maryland talent. The controlled thump of the rhythm section, the caramel coating piano sample, and Mr. DeVaughn’s wispy voice all highlight this charmingly chauvinistic ode to the nameless woman.
10. “Electric Feel” by MGMT, from Oracular Spectacular
Although not as interesting or complex as much of the rest of their debut album, MGMT manage to update Beck’s Midnite Vultures on this infectious track—without visiting campy Camp Kitsch-akoo, Beck’s favorite getaway. In rock history, all sorts of strange similes have celebrated women; this is perhaps the first time one has been likened to an electric eel. She says, “Thanks, I guess?”
11. “Darling” by Sons and Daughters from This Gift
Lead singer Adele Bethel might not appreciate the last two tracks for their objectification of women. She strikes back hard with this hard-hitting, pleading comment on the cult of domesticity. The track is viciously visceral all-around, and Ms. Bethel can sing. “Walk behind him—Sweet duress”: Ironic and sardonic. Touché, you pretty young thing.
12. “Honey” by Erykah Badu, from New Amerikah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
Given the album title, it’s not too tough to figure out that this track is a separate entity from the rest of Ms. Badu’s heavy new record. On this tune, her soulful alto voice dances with a late-seventies southern soul sampled rhythm section and a titillating envelope filtered synth patch—the overall sound evokes the image of dancing lollipops, scientifically speaking. This is a light summertime track for enjoyment only. The rest of the album is for the headphones; this one’s for the car.
13. “Transliterator” by DeVotchKa, from A Mad and Faithful Telling
Denver, Colorado? Who the hell’s from there? Sugarloaf? But seriously, this band DeVotchKa is making consistently exciting, stylistically schizophrenic music. On the coattails of the success of the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, they continue to ride Rocky Mountain high with their new album. Enjoy this Gypsy-esque potpourri of styles and influences–you know, the Denver sound.
14. “Damn, I’m Cold” by Bun B, from II Trill
Lil’ Wayne and Bun B think beyond the superficial guest spot, and make a real rap song. It’s solid work from two of the stud-liest mic-handlers around. Lil’ Wayne delivers the title like a Dancehall “sing-jay” high on cough syrup (pitch-corrected for the robot demographic). Bun B of UGK (RIP Pimp C) has a contrasting but complementary vocal style to Weezy’s. The best part: they both work for the song, and they seem to be listening to each other. A welcome break from the normal disjointed MC collaboration.
15. “You! Me! Dancing!” by Los Campesinos! from Hold On Now, Youngster
Let’s end this mix with some young Welsh enthusiasm! Highlighted by the least-refined glockenspiel playing ever, this super-fantastic-teenage-happy-funtime track will have you dancing down the aisles of even the most mundane of grocery stores… or wherever you dance. Enjoy!
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.