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10 Years, 100 Songs: #85. “Cruisin’ Down the Street in My ’64…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 30, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Dynamite Hack were a post-grunge band from Alvin, Texas, who achieved very brief and limited fame at the turn of the millennium for their cover of N.W.A.’s gangsta rap standard “Boyz n the Hood.” It first appeared on a compilation entitled in a tribue to classic hip-hop entitled Take a Bite Out of Rhyme: A Rock Tribute to Rap, and then as the first single from ’00 full-length Superfast, where the song would gain moderate radio support and eventually peak at #12 on the Modern Rock charts. Many would call the southern white boys’ cover of the violent, decadent West Coast anthem patronizing, obnoxious and dumb, if not outright racist — and they’d certainly have a point. But it’s undeniable that it ended up becoming one of the most surprisingly influential pop covers of the decade.

“Boyz n the Hood” at least attempts to be, at heart, a fairly faithful tribute to what made the original so great, just presented in a different framework — that of the patronizing, obnoxious, dumb white kid enamored with the glamor of the N.W.A. persona. And they certainly hit a nerve there, as it’s practically the manifest destiny of the suburban youth of America to idealize the rock stars of their infancy. Around the time of the 21st century, a new generation was coming of age that found the gangsta rap and eventual G-funk stars to be far more compelling figures than either the lame hair metalers or the introspective grunge dudes that dominated popular rock from the late 80s into the early 90s. They had no shot at ever being like them, or ever being able to relate to their experiences, but neither really did anglophilic punk followers or members of the KISS Army in the late 70s. To these kids, N.W.A’s actual struggles and hard-hitting social commentary were really just peripherals to the true appeal of gangsta rap to young, confused white males — which was the confidence, the pure untouchability that all the genre’s leading lights seemed to possess.

Whether or not it can be morally justified, there’s a reason that this song, and not StainD’s “Bring the Noise” or Kottonmouth Kings’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” was the one that became the first major Stupid White Boys Covering Covering a Classic Rap Song hit. And that’s because Dynamite Hack didn’t really sound like they were doing anything outside of themselves to cover the song. Built on a rollicking guitar-picking melody, the thing sounded almost like a campfire singalong — sweet, catchy and pristine, a perfect jumping off point for a folky story song (which in essence is what “Boyz n the Hood” is).

The Hack were wise to drop listeners right into the middle of the song, and to not attempt to cover the entire near-six minute running time of the original. Drawing it out would have played up the joke elements of the cover, instead of just making it sound like a bunch of bored teenagers trying to glamourize their uneventful events of their day by exaggerating on a few key details–a take on the song supported by the fact that it starts out with the narrator getting bitched out by his mom. Meanwhile, structurally, the song takes the original to the next level by building up to one key point in each verse, at which point the narrator’s unimpressed drawl turns into a triumphant shout–“THEN I LET THE APLINE PLAYYYY!! / I WAS PUMPIN’ NEW SHIT BY N.W.A.!!!”–creating a sense of exultation in the lifestyle, missing in the original because it wouldn’t have made sense to seem that enthusiastic about, but entirely appropriate for a remake by losers for whom the supposed daily events of living in South-Central L.A. would seem unbearably exciting. (The similar excitement in the “I reached back like a pimp and I slapped the hoe” shout-along section, though, feels significantly less triumphant — and makes it a tough modern-day hang by any measure.)

In any event, the success of Dynamite Hack opened the floodgates for similar covers by other pasty artists, like Nina Gordon’s “Straight Outta Compton” and Ben Folds’ “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” as well as less inflammatory send-ups like Coldplay’s “Hot in Herre” and Travis Morrison’s “What’s Your Fantasy?” For better or worse, Dynamite Hack did not stick around to really reap the benefits of their moderate success, as Superfast was their last album released to date, and their hip-hop cover tally seems permanently stalled at one. Probably for the best, but as far as troubling ’00s alt covers of rap classics that should probably have been deemed stay-aways, this is still the one most likely to get at least one smile out of you in between scowls.

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #86. “My Heart’s in Overdrive and You’re Behind the Steering Wheel”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 30, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

When The Darkness first came out, the most common discussion topic about them was always about whether or not they were being ironic. The snobbier critics and indie kids tended to want to believe that they were doing it as near-parody, and the classic rock true believers wanted to believe that they were totally sincere. Of course, both sides of the argument were totally ridiculous. They couldn’t possibly be doing it 100% straight faced, otherwise it’d look more like Jet or Buckcherry, whose intentions were too base and unremarkable to ever be questioned by anyone. And they couldn’t be doing as straight parody, either, otherwise there’s no way they’d be doing such a great job of it. Rather, the appeal of The Darkness was that they viewed classic rock the same way that most people in the 21st century with half a brain and half a heart did–a genre of occasional ridiculous, poorly-dated cliches, which nonetheless continued to tap more effectively into the pleasure centers of listeners than just about any other style of music.

And the crazy thing is that when The Darkness were at the very peak of their hype, they were about as anomalous among their supposed peers as was humanly possible. 2003 was the year of The Strokes’ Room on Fire, The White Stripes’ Elephant, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell–all bands celebrated for their relatively raw, frill-less, street-and-garage-level approach to rock and roll. And yet somehow the UK press still found time to help pitch US audiences on The Darkness, a band for whom “frill-less” will never be among the more fitting appelations. With their glammy get-ups, ripping guitar solos, and unabashedly corny music videos (to match their unabashedly corny lyrics), The Darkness were, for all their retro fixations, actually a breath of fresh air in the almost oppressively pretension-devoid stylings of the New Rock Revolution. (Though don’t worry, all three of those bands will be coming up at some point on this list as well.)

“I Believe in a Thing Called Love” was, without question, the defining moment of The Darkness’s brief reign at the top, and possibly the closest thing that our young century will come to our own “More Than a Feeling.” You know what you’re in for from the very beginning, as the at-first muffled opening riff explodes into your speakers in all its panoramic glory, the perfect introduction for lead singer Justin Hawkins and his classically-trained metaphor usage: “Can’t explain all the feelings that you’re making me feel / My heart’s in overdrive and you’re behind the steering wheel.” Like everything else about the band, Hawkins was big–big hair and big voice, shouting at the top of his lungs from the get, and racing further up and down his multi-octave range as the song goes on (“Touching you-OO-OOO-OOO-OOO!!! / Touching me-EEE-EEE-EEE-EEE!!!“)–hitting the highest registers in rock with the bravado of no one since Lou Gramm and Kevin Cronyn (if not, y’know, Freddie Mercury).

But everyone knows what classic rock is really about–the anthemic chorus, and “Thing Called Love” has a doozy. “I believe in a thing called love / Just listen to the rhythm of my heart / There’s a chance we could make it now / We could rock it ’til the sun goes down / I BELIEVE IN A THING CA-LLED LOOOOOOVE!!!” Pure and easy, a classic rock chorus of such high quality that it doesn’t for a second feel like a cheesy attempt to recapture the glory of a sound that went out of fashion over two decades ago–rather, it sounds like The Darkness bragging that even though they’re 20+ years late to the game, they can still do it better than most of the guys from the genre’s classic period ever could.  Hawkins even uses the chorus–which is virtually impossible to sing along to in both its loose-lipped speed and its dog whistle-level pitch–to demonstrate the #1 rule of classic rock: the band should always seem like they can be properly imitated by anyone, ever.

Throw in a couple great double-tracked guitar solos, some more vocal trilling, and a video that really hits all the high points (Spaceships! Electricity! Giant spidercrabthings! That weird-looking dude with the moustache!), and in three and a half minutes,”I Believe in a Thing Called Love” made supposed classic rock lovers like Tenacious D look like rank amateur-poser-loser assholes by comparison. The best kind of tribute that can be paid to “Thing Called Love” to place it in the true ranks of its cock-rock brethren is that it continues to endure in the positive memories of everyone who was around for it when it came out, becoming a karaoke standard, a modern rock fixture and recently even a feature on VH1’s I Love the New Millennium. Even people who couldn’t name a single Boston or Styx song, and who wouldn’t normally come within half a mile of a mainstream rock radio station, still became converts at least for the duration of the song.

Of course, anyone who thought this song was the beginning of a long, beautiful career is far more of a true believer than I could ever hope to be. The Darkness only achieved a minor follow-up hit off Permission to Land (the mildly clever though somewhat less righteous “Growing on Me”) in the US, and then they only released one more album (the significantly less buzzed-about, albeit brilliantly titled, One Way Ticket to Hell…And Back!) before lead singer Justin Hawkins entered rehab, and left the band. But for a band whose greatest arena rock fantasies were all realized in their first big hit, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised to see the Darkness quickly flame out afterwards. After all, it’s not like Boston ever topped their first album, either.

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #87. “When I Run in the Dark…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 29, 2009

If you pay enough attention to the list here, you’ll notice that it definitely skews towards the beginning of the decade, with songs from the last year or two barely getting any due at all. The reasons for this are unfair, but simple. In my opinion, the way one feels about a pop song is a perception defined almost entirely by four times that you hear it–the first time, the tenth time, the (approximately) one hundredth time, and then the first time again, after not having heard it for a year. The first time is obviously the most important, usually (though not always) telling you enough about a song to at least determine whether or not you like it. The tenth time is key because by that point the song should no longer be packing surprises, and you should be able to judge it with relative thoroughness. The ~100th time is crucial because by that point the song has reached such a complete point of saturation that it will likely no longer move you emotionally in any particular way, thus allowing you to view it with complete objectivity, like a wine taster who spits out his drink so as not to allow the alcohol to cloud his judgement. But the first time after more than a year might be my personal favorite, blending the history of the 100th listen with the fully-formed feelings of the tenth and the freshness of the first. And since we can’t have had that experience yet with songs from so recently, it’s hard to be feel sure enough about them to include them here.

Of course, every so often–and it’s rarer than you might think–you just know. You hear a song and you know from that first listen that the song is something special, something that’s going to stay with you regardless of how many times you hear it. By most of my previously stated standards, “Daniel” shouldn’t be on this list–too new, not popular enough, not obviously significant or influential to the rest of the decade’s pop music. But I knew from the first time I heard it, and the tenth, for that matter, that this was one of the great songs of the decade, and I’m confident enough in being borne out on that that I’ll forgo the ~100th listen and first listen in over a year as qualifications here. Personally, I’d be overjoyed if there’s another song that comes out this year that I have greater faith in.

It was obvious from “What’s a Girl to Do?, the Bat for Lashes (nee Natasha Khan) breakout single from 2006, that the girl was really good. The song was steeped in pop history–hard to get much more obvious than starting with the “Be My Baby” drum beat, of course–but it was also distinctly original, a stunning, shivering ballad with widescreen production and a superbly creepy video. Even the subject matter felt fresh, a song about emotional frigidness that, unlike Lily Allen or any of her more obnoxious contemporaries, actually seemed to be bemoaning the state rather than bragging about it, making the song far more striking. It wasn’t quite a classic, per se–the actual tune wasn’t a killer, and the song never really built much past the chorus–but it showed about as much potential as any other new artist from that year, and seemed to promise that she’d get there soon enough.

“Daniel” was exactly what I was hoping for. It maintained everything that I liked about “What’s a Girl to Do?”–the spooky atmosphere, the raw emotion, the compelling personality–but added absolutely perfect songcraft (and an 80s-ish beat!) to the mix as well. In relative contrast to her earlier semi-hit, “Daniel” was also unabashedly romantic, a paean to the fragile mysteries of young love which, if you believe Khan’s explanations (as well as her single cover), was actually more inspired by Daniel LaRusso, Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid, than any actual figure in her past. In a way, though, that inspiration makes the song richer than if, like some people, Khan had simply based the song on a specific, similarly-named boy of her youth–this way, it’s far dreamier and more idealized, as all recollections of teenage passion should be.

And from the song’s opening lines, sighed by Khan in a loud whisper–“Daniel / When I first saw you / I knew that you had / a flame in your heart”–the song is both frustratingly shadowy and sensationally vivid, confusing and fascinating, just like…well, you get the idea. Rather than relate simple tales of dalliances, Khan sticks mostly to simple, evocative phrases, split almost evenly between the atmospheric (“Under our blue skies / marbe movie skies,” “The smell of cinders and rain,” “Just catch in the eye of the storm”) and the physical (“With my arms around your neck,” “I found a home in your eyes”) to build a staggeringly emotionally loaded framework for the song. But as great as the verses are, they’d be nothing without an amazing chorus to anchor them, and “Daniel” has certainly has that–an almost devestatingly beautiful melody for the best synthesis of the song’s two types of lyrics: “When I run in the dark / to a place that’s vast / under a sheet of rain in my heart / I dream of home.” It’s the song encapsulated, and with the haunting (yeah, yeah, I had to say that word at least once) echo of “Dan-iel” ringing in the background after each line, it’s positively unforgettable.

And she had the song to match this time, as well. To have the synth-drum beat was an absolutely brilliant move, simultaneously ensuring the song’s catchiness and preventing it from ever sounding too draggy or dippy, but the entire thing’s a marvel–the violin hook that provides the bridge in between chorus and verse, the subtle bass drum rolls at various points of the song, the guitar reverberations throughout, they all add up to a gorgeous bed for Khan’s hazy, infinitely-tracked cries to lie their head on. The most commonly used points of reference (and justifiably so) for the song were The Cure’s “A Forest,” which Khan was so close to ripping off directly with the song’s theme and melody that she covered the song on the single’s b-side to be on the safe side, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” the prototypical mysterious, unnerving gypsy woman ballad, from which Khan even borrowed the “singing the titular name on its own without context” lyrical device. But I’ll throw a less trendy third one in there–Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession,” with which “Daniel” not only shares a swirling richness of production but a lyrical conceit and vocal performance so personal and intimate that it borders on the disturbing (and indeed, in the case of “Possession,” the song was even written from the perspective of a real-life stalker of McLachlan’s).

It’s all a very proud lineage, and Bat for Lashes fits it to a T. It doesn’t hurt that Khan herself, despite nearing the age of 30, still kind of had the look of a lost teenager to her in the video, with her droopy hair, baggy clothes, and (obviously painted on) perpetual tears, really made you want to save her from the demons plaguing her (literally, in the video–though why Khan keeps insisting on traveling on these empty roads at unnaturally nocturnal hours is, of course, anyone’s guess) and make her feel at home again. I hoped she could maintain the feeling of “Daniel” throughout full-length effort Two Suns, but though she came close at other points, “Daniel” is clearly her career standout, and one that will take great effort and fortune to match in future efforts. Still, you’d be foolish not to be monitoring her career very, very closely in the decade to come–and hey, with a couple hundred listens down, who’s to say how high her future songs could rank on our list of the 2010s?

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #88. “Five Percent Tint So You Can’t See Up in My Windows”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 24, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

(Vid not very safe for work)

For the longest time, no one would explain to me what Screwed & Chopped meant. I would ask, and they would give answers to the effect of “well, it’s when DJs take records, screw them and then chop them.” (Thanks.) When I actually found out that it just referred to DJs slowing records down considerably and cutting them up a little bit to aurally simulate the effect of tripping on cough syrup, I sort of understood–when you explain it in theory, it kind of sounds like a dumb practice to make something close to on an entire subgenre out of. Not that the records were particularly revelatory either, but as far as quickly forgotten (in mainstream pop anyway, I’m sure the practice is still huge in the greater Houston area) 00s musical trends, S&C was one of the more enjoyable ones. For whatever reason, some songs like The Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?” just sounded extremly cool when played at third-speed and stuttered somewhat.

The coolest thing to come out of the craze, though, was “Still Tippin.” Not officially a Screwed & Chopped remix, the “Tippin” beat nonetheless certainly seemed inspired by the practice. Slow and low, with a clearly wound-down vocal hook, the song seemed to just sort of ooze out of the radio, sounding almost experimental in its lack of forward momentum. And the result was totally badass, one of the most striking and unforgettable hip-hop songs of the middle of the decade. Perhaps uncoincidentally, the song took a long-ass time to get going on the national scene–S&C was still mostly an underground trend, and at the time the pop charts were dominated by songs going the other direction, ones by Kanye West and Just Blaze based on soul samples that were sped up. But the thing was too good to stay dormant forever, and though it didn’t chart very high, it was big enough to make the names of all three of the rappers on it.

Slim Thug was up first, being probably the most high-profile of the three at that point. It served well as an introductory verse, hitting all the key themes of the song (rims, drugs, bitches, guns, personal accoutrements, record-label namedropping) and even kind of summarizing the feel of the song in its first line (“Now look who creepin’, look who crawlin’ / Still ballin’ in the mix”) . His voice also certainly set a tone for the song, deep and laconic, in no particular rush to get anywhere because he sounded like he was already where it was at. Mike Jones was next, certainly one of the more memorable personalities of the decade–not exceptionally skilled as a rapper (though stumbling across a good line here and there), but winning by sheer force of personality. He was a one-trick pony, sure, but for one song at least his relentless self-promoting was mildly intriguing, and his thick, slurry drawl was compelling as well.

The real surprise, though, was the last man standing, Paul Wall–a Houston rapper/jeweler who wouldn’t even have been on the song if not for inheriting the third verse after Jones’ fallout with Chamillionaire. With a southern accent even more pronounced than Slim or Mike’s and a dialect seemingly all his own, just listening to him pronounce his own name (“Pahhh-ullll Wahhh-ulll”) was hypnotic. He looked like no other rapper on the scene, almost creepy in his relentless ugliness, but somehow that just made him all the more lovable. The verse introduced all the phrases that would go on to become Wall trademarks, hooks and/or album titles (“What it do,” “The people’s champ,” “Baby, holla at me”) and had a couple great lines that wouldn’t have made sense coming from just about any other rapper (“I’m crawling similar to an ant / ‘coz I’m low to the Earth,” “I got the internet goin’ nuts / But T. Farris got my back so now I’m holding my nuts”–the latter of which endeared him particularly to net communities). You weren’t sure who the guy was or how he got there, but once in, you couldn’t get him out of your head.

Still, the real star of the song was absolutely the beat, produced by Salih Williams, and based around a line in Slim Thug’s verse. It was a relatively simple beat, mostly riding on a back-and-forth between a pounding piano chord and a moaning violin riff. It’s a stunning combination, weird and almost haunting, sounding more like something out of a John Cale song than anything we’d heard out of Houston so far. But the key was how raw the thing felt, how thoroughly street and uncompromised–a perception certainly reinforced by the song’s video, which in censored form just felt like the three guys and all their local friends hanging out with a 5k budget, and in uncensored form (above, which I actually had no idea about until very recently), unapologetically dirty enough to become a word-of-mouth favorite or just a BET: Uncut classic. Just about anything would’ve sounded great over the beat; with these three guys on it, it sounded like a sensation.

The country took notice. By the end of the year, not only would all three guys have relative hits of various sizes of their own (“I Ain’t Heard of That,” “Back Then,” “Sittin’ Sidewayz”), but all three would appear as guest artists on the megahits of others (Slim on Beyonce’s “Check On It,” Mike on T-Pain’s “I’m in Luv (Wit a Stripper)” and Paul on Nelly’s “Grillz”), becoming constant presences on the pop scene. Mike Jones in particular briefly became a phenomenon, mostly due to his ridiculous marketing gimmicks–naming his album Who is Mike Jones?, giving out his personal phone number for fans to call, shouting his name all the damn time–which, remarkably enough, actually worked for a while. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t, with follow-up hit “Back Then” being almost comically monotonous and rapidly wearing out its welcome with its ceaseless “Back then, ho’s didn’t want me / Now I’m hot, ho’s all on me” hook–which, oh yeah, already appeared four times on his “Tippin” verse.

But in general, none of the three have yet recaptured the excitement or originality of “Still Tippin’,” a song which sounds just as cool today as it ever did. In ten years or so, it’ll probably sound like an alien transmission of some sort, and we’ll wonder how there was ever a time when Paul Wall was ever permitted within a hundred feet of a female on national TV.

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Dr. Pepper

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 24, 2009

Dr Pepper

Is there anything it can’t do?

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #89. “Everybody Get Your Necks to Crack Around”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 23, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

It’s hard to overstate just how over Nelly Furtado’s career seemed in 2005. Successful as breakthrough Whoa Nelly! may have been at the beginning of the decade, it seemed more than a little bit fluky, making Furtado seem like the kind of spunky singer/songwriter that entrances pop audiences and the mainstream press just long enough to get nominated for (or God forbid, win) the Best New Artist grammy, and then disappear for all-time (See also: Neneh Cherry, Des’Ree, Shelby Lynne, Corrine Bailey Rae, and in all likelihood, Adele). Not that “I’m Like a Bird” and “Turn Off the Light” weren’t perfectly nice songs, but they sounded unbelievably dated about a month after they stopped being popular, and when follow-up album Folklore failed to produce even a near-hit single, I doubt anyone was terribly surprised. I even remember joking to my friends around then that Nelly Furtado was the first official casualty of the 00s, an assurance that our decade would eventually produce as many LOL-worthy relics as the 80s and 90s before them.

Then, “Maneater.” Now, I think “Promiscuous” was the first official single off the album, and obviously it would go on to become not only her biggest hit but the biggest hit of all 2006, but “Maneater” was the first song to leak (or leak prominently, anyway) from Loose, and it was the first taste I got of Nelly Furtado 2.0. I’m not sure that my jaw has ever literally dropped listening to a song before, and it probably didn’t then either, but it was likely as close as I’ll ever get. There’s career reinterventions, and then there’s career interventions, and then there’s Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater.” I instantly had to take back everything nasty and disparaging I had said about Nelly Furtado’s future prospects, and begrudgingly acknowledge that had decent (bordering on sure-thing) odds on reclaiming a place in the Top 40 spotlight. Except really, it wasn’t begrudging at all, because the song was so fucking good.

Not to say that Nelly herself had proven me wrong, necessarily, since nothing about “Maneater” really made me feel like I had underestimated her talent or just how enduring her songwriting really was. As with the #90 single on our list, the overwhelming majority of the success of “Maneater” must go to the producers and in this case co-writers–Danja and Timbaland. From the very first beat, they made it clear that something was obviously different–Furtado’s earlier hits were airy, wispy pieces of young-girl daydream, bearing absolutely no ideological resemblance to the stomping beat bringing in the song here, or the ominously minor “ohhhh-ohhhh”s in the background. Then the synths, growling and muscular, ensuring that no one was half-stepping with this one.

And then Nelly herself. Technically the voice was the same voice who swore that her love was rare, her love was true, and told you to follow her, follow her, follow her, down down down down till you saw all her dreams, but the person behind it was completely unrecognizable. Gone was the smart but vulnerable and confused girl who seemed to just be opening her eyes up to the world, and in her place, a jaded, unimpressed robo-sexpot who seemed like she’d spent the last five years learning about life and love the hardest way imaginable. She even looked completely different, less like a free-spirited coffee house denizen than a drugged-out supermodel waif. This wasn’t an artistic transformation or evolution, it was a complete recasting.

Except…well, it worked pretty damn well, thanks to Timbaland and Danja, who with “Maneater” started a Do No Wrong period of pop domination rivaled this decade only by the early-decade run of the Neptunes. Not that Timbo wasn’t a consistent pop presence throughout the decade, but here he was reinventing himself almost as much as Nelly, creating maybe the hardest-hitting, most incendiary beat of his career for her to vamp on top of. The drums pounded, the synths blazed, and the minor production flourishes inserted for texture–the simple repeated cry of “oh!” in the background, the occasional flipping and reversing of the beat in the middle of the verses–all gave the song the kind of flair that always made Tim’s hits really jump off, like the baby crying sounds on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” or the japanese interjections in Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.” (Four years later, the two would re-jump Justin Timberlake’s career in similar fashion with the lean, gritty “Sexy Back”).

All Nelly really had to do was show up. Ultimately, if it wasn’t for how great the songs came out, her involvement with Loose would be kind of a sad story, because you can’t say that she brought anywhere near the songwriting verve or force of personality that she used to have to this song. The verses are lousy, an awkward mix of boring party exhortations and sloppy narrative. The chorus is better, an above-average singalong (especially with the Hall & Oates touchstone already existing as an obvious reference point), but the whole thing really feels like Furtado came to the studio and either decided or was told that the old Nelly was played out, and that new robo-sexpot Nelly was now the way to go. Not being terribly attached to the Mk. 1 version, I felt little betrayal at this, but I couldn”t help but wonder what her real fans–assuming any remained at that point–felt about the new model.

Anyway, what her old fans thought didn’t really matter, since she was about to have hordes of new ones. “Promiscuous,” out first, was the real slam dunk single, though its chorus was still mildly cringeworthy (who would ever refer to anyone as “promiscuous girl” or “promiscuous boy”?) and Nelly and Timbo had about as much sexual chemistry together as Shannon and Sayid on LOST. But the hooks were undeniable and the song quickly became a juggernaut, eventually helping (along with “Maneater” and the also pretty good “Say it Right”) to sell two million copies of Loose, about the equivalent of six million around the time of Whoa Nelly!‘s release. The real question, now, is where Furtado will go from here–will the druggy seductress act manage to endure, or will it fizzle as quickly as her folk-hippie appeal did? And if so–does Nelly have a Mk. 3 still in her?

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10 Years, 100 Songs: #90. “I’ve Been Waiting, Think I Wanna Make a Move”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 19, 2009

There weren’t too many one-hit wonders like “Me & U” this decade, or any other, really. 90-95% of the time, an artist becomes an OHW either because their original hit paints them into a corner, making them forever identified with a song whose novelty was unsustainable, or was riding a trend that had already started to crest, or really just wasn’t good enough to deserve a follow-up. But every soften, you get a one-off that’s just the result of a fantastic set of circumstnaces coming together–the forces of the universe conspiring or the planets aligning or whatever. You don’t even really consider them as one-hit wonders until you look back at the end of the decade and think to yourself, “wow, haven’t heard from them lately.” Because it’s a song that, essentially, seems much better, much more special, than the artist performing it.

Cassie never really struck me as a particularly exceptional talent. She had a nice enough voice but not one so distinctive that you could pick it blind from the radio, and she was cute, but if you tried to picture her in your head, you’d probably just come up with some aggregate compisition of three or four different, cuter, and far more memorable R&B divas of the decade. Not like she ever really stuck around long enough to show us one way or the other, but from “Me & U” alone, you probably wouldn’t be too inclined to try to discover more about her. Especially not when she had already given us “Me & U,” a song so wonderful that you really couldn’t possibly care less what else she–or any other ingenue on the radio, really–had to offer.

Of course, the success of “Me & U” is not even all Cassie’s to take credit for–much of it, if not the great majority of it, has to go to writer/producer Ryan Leslie. Leslie was the man who discovered Cassie (though unsurprisingly, more as a party girl than as a musical prodigy), and having deemed her the feature star of his NextSelection label, he hedged his bets a little on her breakout by giving her one of the great lyrics and beats of the decade to work with on her debut single. As could be heard on his moderately successful solo singles since (“Diamond Girl,” “Addiction,” the latter of which actually features Cassie on the hook), Leslie was a good songwriter and a dynamite producer, but there was something missing–a star quality, or maybe just a totally undeniable hook. Cassie was probably his best bet for a big hit, and he put all his chips on her by giving her “Me & U” to carry.

Of course, it’d be something of a challenge for anyone to screw up a beat this good. Like most of the Timbaland/Danja and Timbaland/Danja-influenced hits that dominated the charts around the time of its release, “Me & U” was centered around a minimal, synth-heavy hook, but unlike those songs, the minimalism wasn’t intended to sound gritty or funky, but just kind of…intimate. It was more lulling than invigorating, more delicate than raw. I remember Timbo saying at the time of his big hits with Nelly Furtado that they were listening to groups like the Police and the Eurythmics for inspiration, but more than any of their collabs, “Me & U” feels like those bands’ best hits to me–mysterious, private, and a little bit weird, but perplexingly compelling. Take away the vocals and it could almost work as a late-90s Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada song, and the instrumental version of the track has since become a mix favorite of mine.

But that’s not to say that Cassie doesn’t get points for the song’s success, either. Leslie’s lyric is the perfect complement for his beat, a come-on song that actually scales back the seduction a surprising degree–really, it’s a song written about the moment before the seduction, still when the relationship is in the hypothetical (tellingly, the video features no male lead at all, just Cassie alone with her potentially scandalous thoughts in a dance studio). Cassie delivers the song quietly and dispassionately, which doesn’t exactly show off her chops, but is just the sort of vocal underplaying that such a gentle, almost naive-sounding love song (“I think I wanna make a move”–Cassie sounds more like she’s scribbling mash notes in her high school notebook than grinding with some dude in a club). It’s so personal-sounding, both musically and lyrically, that it almost felt uncomfortable to witness it on Top 40 radio for all the world to hear, and it made almost everything else that was on at the time sound unbearably obnoxious by comparison.

Interestingly, the song’s So Seductive Remix and its original, low-budget and fairly risque video show what the song would sound and look like if its temptress qualities–which are there, certainly–were brought to its forefront. At this point, the song ceases to be a young girl’s romantic fantasy and turns into a minx’s siren call, now grimy and desperate instead of gentle and yearning. The video, which now features a male lead somewhat more prominently as Cassie takes an anonymous guy (in slightly disconcerting “Smack My Bitch Up”-esque POV) back to her hotel and comes about two steps away from actually fellating him on-screen (in One Night in Paris-esque nightvision), drives this transformation home more than a little bit. Apparently Cassie disavowed the video entirely, preferring the much less scandalous version to be the authoritative take on the song, but it’s actually far more interesting with both existing, and the remix is almost as cool and strange in its own slightly more obvious way.

So why couldn’t I have named a single other Cassie song if my life depended on it before writing this article? Well, with songs like this, you don’t question why the artist was never able to follow it up, but marvel at how lucky they were to cobble it together in the first place. I don’t know whether it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things that was responsible for it, but for a few months in 2006, “Me & U” made Cassie an immortal.

Posted in 10 Years 100 Songs (00s) | 3 Comments »

Schadenfraude / Take Five: Pun Disses of “Year One”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 19, 2009

Year One

  • “Talk about a disaster of biblical proportions!” –Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
  • “So simple even a caveman will appreciate it. Correction: Make that only a caveman.” –Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post
  • “And the studio did open “Year One.” And the people did see it. And then the wailing and gnashing of teeth did truly begin, and the people did rend their garments once more, even those cute white capris that they just got at such a sale you wouldn’t believe.”-Stephen Whitty, New Jersey Star Ledger
  • “Its script isn’t worth the papyrus it’s printed on” / “THOU SHALT NOT SEE IT”-Kyle Smith, New York Post
  • Sets prehistoric comedy back at least 20 years.” –Stephanie Zacharek, Salon

Posted in Schadenfreude, Take Five | 1 Comment »

10 Songs, 100 Years: #91. “Lighting the Fuse Might Result in a Bang”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 19, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Of all the really huge British phenom bands of the rock era, it’s hard to think of one that was much less phenomenal than the Arctic Monkeys. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, mind you–just that there wasn’t that much about them that screamed Biggest Band in the Country/Continent/World. They weren’t strikingly original, they didn’t ride any sort of burgeoning movement (either musical or social), they didn’t say anything particularly new, they didn’t look that remarkable, and they didn’t have any real gimmick to latch themselves onto. You couldn’t even say that their lack of notability was extreme enough that that was their thing–they were DIY, sure, but not in a revolutionary sort of way. They might have been novel to UK audiences at the time–I don’t know exactly what UK pop culture was in the period before they broke, obviously–but just from listening to their music or watching their videos, you’d never think that this band would be doing record-shattering sales, or being lofted to the rafters by the UK media as one of the Great British Rock Bands.

Except that they did write some pretty great songs–none better than the first blast and the song that got the whole thing started, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Once again, culturally speaking, it’s hard to stack it up against the other great debut singles in UK rock history, just because you don’t feel like anything is arriving with the song besides the band themselves, but as far as arrival songs go, it’s certainly a pretty great one. The main thing that it has going for it, and one of the main hallmarks of the band themselves, is its supreme confidence. You can see it in the video, certainly–not many bands receiving the level of hype that the Monkeys were getting before they even released their first single would release a video that feels more like a bootleg than anything else, or one in which they actually tell audiences not to believe the hype about them. But if it was good enough for the Strokes, it was good enough for the Arctic Monkeys, and they knew that the song was strong enough to justify the buzz for them anyway.

You could tell instantly that the Arctic Monkeys knew their shit by their use of that classic, master-level intro hook–the wind-up riff. Found in similarly brilliant and nationally galvanizing early-career singles like the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” a wind-up riff is when a song starts with what sounds like the band attempting to sputter their main riff to life. The song sounds like it’s marching right into it, but it stutters a couple times first, like the main riff is so unbelievably gigantic that it takes a couple measures just to generate enough electricity to power it. Assuming it’s not overdone–and none of the songs listed overdo it, otherwise they’d be totally sapped of energy by the time the song even kicked in–it’s the perfect way to create an almost-uncomfortable level of tension and excitement, before the riff finally kicks in and everyone’s relieved and dancing and rapturous and such.

The really impressive thing about “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” though, is not just that it reaches that level of excitement, but that it very nearly manages to keep it up for the entirety of the song’s just-under-three minutes. The whole song is just bursting at the seams, feeling almost unstably overstuffed, and getting a ridiculous amount done in its 174 seconds. Singer Alex Turner delivers the verses like the band’s manager is standing behind him holding a stopwatch, and the song never seems to take a measure off for a breather, transitioning from verse to chorus and back with barely a moment’s rest (so much so that when the song finally does grind to a halt for a full split-second, it’s practically comic relief). The song’s subject is generally pedestrian–just Turner trying to pick up a girl in a club–but it’s delivered with such urgency and passion that it’s not hard to see how it could end up getting received as a sort of generational anthem, despite being thematically analogous to songs like the #92 entry on our list.

What always separated the Monkeys from the pack, though, was their lyrical acuity. Not that they possessed any incredible wisdom or unqiue perspective, but like so many of their British ancestry, they wrote with a kind of observational detail and sharp tongue that just lifted their songs a cut above. “You stop making the eyes at me / I’ll stop making the eyes at you” is a fantastic opening line, managing to establish setting, tone and scenario without really even describing anything. The “Your name isn’t Rio / but I don’t care for sand” line is just clever enough to excuse the somewhat strained reference, and reminding people of a great pop song while trying to sell your own great pop song is always a good move. And then there’s the greatest coup of them all, the main chorus couplet–“I bet that you look good on the dancefloor / I don’t know if you’re looking for romance, or.” It could’ve been horribly awkward, a song-distracting groaner, but it’s delivered with such assuredness and then breezed by so quickly that you barely have time to register what they’ve done before the song’s moved on to bigger and better things, and looking back on it you just kind of chuckle. Turner would flex his lyrical verve more on later singles, but here he does just enough to show that he knows what he’s doing, while keeping the focus on the visceral punch of the music. (What else rhymes with “dancefloor,” anyway?)

I don’t have much of a handle on what the national take is on the Arctic Monkeys in the UK these days, but from this side of the pond, it seems like the band has pretty well fizzled in the mere four years since they were supposed to be the biggest thing ever to happen to post-Britpop UK rock and roll. They never really caught on in the US, but that was hardly surprising–we only really let Brits infiltrate our airwaves if a) We can’t tell they’re British b) They’re so obviously British that it’s kind of funny or c) They get Americans to sing and/or lip synch in the videos while they just hang back and collect royalties, and the Arctic Monkeys fell into none of these three categories. But after a strong string of singles from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not–“When The Sun Goes Down,” “Leave Before the Lights Come On,” “Fake Tales of San Francisco”–the Monkeys maybe released their second album a little too early, and with a lingering feeling of burnout and diminishing returns musically, it felt like all their early momentum had completely disappeared. They’re currently working on a third album, but early reports that the Monkeys were listening to Cream and Hendrix while recording the album are not terribly encouraging.

Still, I’m not sure the Arctic Monkeys were ever meant to be much more than what they became. Maybe it was due to a derth of other hype-worthy peers, lingering disappointment over the Libertines’ burnout, or a reaction to all the New Rock Revolution darlings being Americans (or Swedes, I suppose), but the Monkeys never seemed like the band to shoulder an entire movement’s worth of hype–they seemed like the band that would be the thinking man’s alternative to the band that was actually getting all the press and national adoration. They were like a Kinks without a Beatles, a Jam without a Sex Pistols, a Pulp without a Blur or Oasis. They were fun and they were exciting, but if I was a 14-year-old kid in Manchester or Leeds or wherever, I’d be pretty disappointed if this was the band being marketed to me as the definitive group of my generation. Really, all they did was write some great songs–and no one can be held at fault for that.

Posted in 10 Years 100 Songs (00s) | 2 Comments »

10 Years, 100 Songs: #92. “Talk to Me, I Talk Back”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 17, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

When Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction” came out towards the end of 2006, I thought it was absolutely the bee’s knees. Brilliantly produced, flawlessly played by Mr. Broadus, and one of the most pitch-perfect videos of the decade, no doubt. But as much as I loved it, I would sure it would be remembered by history as a novelty, a somewhat parodic comment on a ridiculous and short-lived mini-trend in pop music, and that ten years we would look back on it and say “what the fuck was that about?” Flash forward to about a year and a half later, though, and just about everything on the radio sounded like “Sensual Seduction.” Well, not exactly–the synth-and-flute combo hook never quite caught on, unfortunately–but the most immediately recognizable and most obviously gimmicky part of the song, the autotuned vocals, was positively omnipotent. Snoop wasn’t satirizing a trend, he was just jumping on the bandwagon a couple months before it really got going. And the man responsible for all of this? One Faheem Rasheed Najm, better known as T-Pain.

T-Pain never made any sense as a pop culture lynchpin. Like the other weirdest (and most dominant) force in pop music towards the end of the decade, Lil’ Wayne, T-Pain seemed vaguely alien-ish, but not in an irrepressibly charismatic way. If Weezy was the T-1000 of the 00s, a shape-shifting, unstoppably prolific and unapologetic figure, then T-Pain would be the Predator, lurking in the shadows, occasionally downright invisble, but capable of no less an amount of destruction (and looking kinda the same with those dreads, top hat and big-ass sunglasses). His first hit, “I’m Sprung,” was terrible, and his second, “I’m in Luv (Wit a Strippa)” wasn’t much better (although it was much funnier, at least), but along the way, partially thanks to guest appearances on hits like E-40’s “U and Dat” and R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt,” Pain’s distinctly robotic warble started to worm its way into the subconscious of the nation–so much so that by the time of second album Epiphany, T-Pain was ready for a legitimate breakout.

“Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” T-Pain’s first #1 hit as a solo artist, is about as definitive as it gets for the dreadlocked wonder. Like the man itself, the song is largely inexplicable. It rides the snap trend that was prevalent in hip-hop at the time, even referencing it in the lyrics and title, but sounds nothing remotely like anything Dem Franchize Boyz or D4L ever did. It’s arguable as a standard R&B love ballad, but the main chorus is neither really romantic, seductive or anything but vaguely non-sequitorial (“I’ma buy you a drank / I got money in the bank”)–and then once you get to the “think about it / awwwwwwWWWWW SNAP!” section, all pretenses at love-making (physical or lyrical) have more or less been dropped. And with the minimal beat and beds of synth hooks that adorn the song, it sounds a little too sobering to be really effective as a pick-up soundtrack, seeming more appropriate for the morning after than anything.

Not to say that I’m complaining about any of this, however. If anything, it shows how insiduous the T-Pain sound was in general that he was able to get such an enigmatic, cool-sounding mishmash of production themes and lyrical tics to the top of the charts. What other hit this decade has backing harmonies anywhere near as stunning as these, especially during the “We in the bed like / ….” section? What other hit has so many clashing, freelancing synth lines, which always come together at just the right points of the song? What other hit slips in references to 50 Cent, UNK, Lil’ Jon and TI without ever breaking the feel of the lyrics? What other hit has a chorus so fun to sing along to while you forcefully vibrate your throat to attempt to mimic the sound? It all adds up to something of a mess, but shambolic glory is glory nonetheless, and it’s all tied together by that damned autotune, which–ironically for a device invented for the purpose of making vocalists more standardized–turned T-Pain one of the most compelling, and distinctly original, crooners of the decade.

Of course, it’d be unfair of me to give all the credit for “Buy U a Drank” to T-Pain. As he gave out for so many other hip-hop artists himself, T-Pain got a huge assist on this song from oughties relic-to-be Yung Joc. Already responsible for perhaps the most hypnotically montonous hip-hop song of the decade, “It’s Goin’ Down” (which made “Wait (The Whisper Song)” sound like “Flight of the Bumblebee”), Joc was kind enough to lend his unexcited drawl to the guest verse in “Drank.” He acts as kind of a stablizing force for the song, coming in after two verses and choruses of Pain’s vocal histrionics and bizarre exultations to settle things down for a verse (and naturally, lyrically reference his own hit just in case you had already forgotten who he was), before kindly throwing the song back to T-Pain for the climactic bridge section. His 12 bars aren’t anything revelatory (though I always thought “I’m checkin’ your body language, I love the conversation / and when you lick your lips I get a tinglin’ sensation” was a surprisingly descriptive couplet), but it serves its purpose quite well, and it means that Joc gets to tell his diseblieving grandkids that he was on two top five hits–crazy decade, huh?

Of course, once T-Pain had officially broken through, the floodgates opened, and the numbers he’s put up since are staggering enough to make you wonder if he’s juicing somehow. In the last three years of this decade alone–two and a half, really, since this one still has aways to go–he’s released or appeared on 21 different top 40 hits, 11 of which have gone top ten and three of which went all the way to pole position. And beyond that, just about everyone he’s come into contact with has gone on to spread the autotune gospel elsewhere, meaning that even on the minority of pop songs that didn’t actually feature his voice, you were still fairly likely to hear someone that suddenly sounded a whole lot like him, whether it be Chris Brown, Kanye West, Akon, or even Lil’ Wayne himself. When Jay-Z, the self-annointed arbiter of hip-hop, has to actually release a single that tries to pronounce a movement dead, you know it’s reached a near-dangeorus level of musical permeation.

Still, a decade removed from “Believe” and “Only God Knows Why,” maybe the autotune takeover was all just an inevitability. Frankly, I’m glad that at least it was in the hands of a guy who didn’t take himself too seriously, knew a good hook when he heard it, and occasionally created some weirdly beautiful and hilarious hits that the country was powerless to ignore. If the new decade does indeed bring the death of autotune, it was still time well spent in this one.

Posted in 10 Years 100 Songs (00s) | 7 Comments »