Monday, December 03, 2007

Top songs of 2007

Another great year of music. Reviewing what I listened to and what I purchased in the last twelve months, most of it emerged at hip hop class or helped propel me through training. I've been thinking about my top ten list for several weeks now, and I feel solid about it. The list reflects my devotion to R&B and my affinity for beats that guide you to a dance floor. The list is completely subjective and reflective of my own personal tastes and life experiences; with that said, if you disagree with it, you're wrong. Without further ado:

10. Maroon 5, "Makes Me Wonder." I liked this song a lot this summer; it was extremely catchy, the lyrics were self-righteous and pissy in an awesome way ("it really makes me wonder if I ever gave a f*** about you"...burn), and it kicked off an album that I really enjoyed. The whole time in California I felt like I was trying to pretend I was in a Maroon 5 video. But despite all of these great qualities, why do I feel that the song and the band are included on this list merely as the token whites?

9. Timbaland, Keri Hilson, & Sebastian, "Miscommunication." This song is an echo of my top pick for the year, and it has been unstoppable for me in the last few weeks. As usual, Tim's beat is undulating and constant. Keri sings Tim's verse right alongside him, then grabs hold of the song and doesn't let it go for the next three minutes. The chorus moves from a warbling staccato barrage of "you"s to longer, loopy "do"s, and in the second verse Keri's accompanying herself in a lower octave, hilarious lines that she beats to death (in the good way), even mocking Tim at the same time ("only gave you my number cuz, drinks made you cuter plus, you were lookin sad and lonely...") Then, Sebastian cames in with a rap, lazy, nonsensical, bringing the song to an abrupt close, leaving you mad for more. You could have recited a grocery list over that beat and it would have been one of my top ten. Perfect.

8. Kanye West, "Flashing Lights." To me, this is one of the most polished, smartly-produced tracks I've heard in a long time. The first time I heard it was on my 10-mile training run (how naive I was back then) and I replayed it twice, immediately, as soon as the song ended. (If I hadn't been in the midst of a run, I would have stopped to dance, yet even as I ran, I managed to work in a few of my patented forearm raises in appreciation.) Besides the "My Love"-like production, the catchy chorus from Dwele, and the disembodied female voice chanting the song title for an unclear reason, the song marks the rare occasion when Kanye isn't rapping about how awesome he is. All that, plus some of the rhymes and meters of the lines are brilliant: "if somebody woulda told me a month ago frontin' though yo I wouldn't wanna know; if somebody woulda told me a year ago it'd go get this difficult..."

7. Ne-Yo, "Do You." This was one of those songs that seemed like a typical R&B ballad at first, but I was compelled to get it, and once I did, the only thing our neighbors heard for weeks was me sounding like a strangled cat trying to sing along. This is a great song because: it builds the entire time, from first verse to last adlib; it tells a coherent story, of a guy wondering if his old girl (now with kid and fiance) ever thinks of him; and the song is built around long notes, notes long enough for you to bless them with your own interpretations and runs. There is something great about the time when you first learn a song well enough to know the words, but it's still new enough to add your own spin without every recorded vocal dip and trick cluttering up your mind. I really loved learning this song and singing it my way, then Ne-Yo's way, then in a country way. Maybe I'll try it in spanish next, I don't know. But it's beautiful, Mary J. Blige turned it into a great duet, and that last 80 seconds kill me -- I can't help but follow the dude on every word, and then close it out singing along with the flute blipping up and down the scale, as Ne-Yo presumably breaks down into a sobbing heap contemplating lost love. Because that's what it sounds like he does.

6. Beyonce, "Kitty Kat." A lot happened in 2007. For example, I got sick of Beyonce. But before my Beyonce fatigue set in, I was captivated by this track. Another extremely typical R&B confection, perhaps, with her signature spare beats, except this has a couple distinguishing elements: 1) she is sing-songing the chorus and has this killer rap-chant at the end that is the sexiest she has ever sounded, and 2) this whole literary device of a kitty cat -- the kitty cat as allusion, kitty cat as metaphor. What could she possibly be talking about? "Let's go, kitty cat, it's time go, kitty cat..." Who would let Beyonce's kitty cat walk out the door?

5. Omarion, "Ice Box." I had to remind myself how passionately I felt about this song in the first half of the year, because I'm kind of sick of it now. But Timbaland added his weird, lovely rhythms to it, and the chorus has some unexpected beauty: "I've got this ice box where my heart used to be." Omarion threw some intensity into his vocals on his second verse, and he really comes at this song with some tenacity. And who can't love a song with Tim muttering, dozens of times, "I'm so cold, I'm so cold, I'm so cold"? The song has this goofy literalism that makes it fun to dance to in a regular way as well as an extremely dorky, direct-interpretation-of-the-words sort of way.

4. Lloyd, "Get It Shawty." This song! Oh sweet lord above, this song. This track is so light, so ethereal, it doesn't even seem to have a bass line. Lloyd's thin, wispy voice wanders throughout the track, around the little sample from Technotronic, but the song brings some surprising force. The first time I heard it was in hip hop -- we were doing some other song, but Russell put this track on, and the class just came alive, like this big communal awakening, as we all realized that this song is ridiculous. Like a few other songs here, it ends with a playful little rap verse, which I really dorked out to in San Diego and performed for a bunch of people, which happened to be caught on film, which I sort of regret. But this is a great track, cool and smooth, perfect for a summer night.

3. R. Kelly, T.I. & T-Pain, "I'm a Flirt." This song perfectly encompasses the cheesy brilliance of R. Kelly. "I'm a flirt," it's a verb and a noun, a boast and a warning, a confession and a lifestyle. The piano beat and bass line are simple enough for all three artists to really throw some of their best into each verse. And maybe this is me projecting, but I swear on his final chorus Kelly is throwing some emotion into the words -- some rueful lines, maybe, explaining himself to the hearts he's broken? When that last verse kicks in, what else can you do, really, but dig in your heels, breathe deep into your stomach, warm up your upper register and sing the hell out of it? There's nothing else you would want to do.

2. Diddy and Keyshia Cole, "Last Night." At first it's another Diddy vanity project, one in which he seems to be flaunting his own vocal mediocrity and tunelessness. Over a decent drumbeat, and with a haunting melody provided by something (a harpsichord? who knows), he's complaining about last night's romantic battle and the emotional paralysis that followed. Just when you think you're about to endure four minutes of his muttering, a revelation: Keyshia Cole steps in, offering her own verses, choruses, bridges, ad-libs -- and not only that, she is singing with all the emotion and pain that Diddy can't find himself. Is she responding to what he's saying, or (this is my theory) is she expressing the words that Diddy can't? The song becomes a six-minute epic, both sides battling for love, reaching a climax and surprisingly good denouement as Diddy picks up the phone to call the object of his love and frustration. I couldn't get enough of this song this year; I was singing it in Barcelona, on the train, in school. Yeah, I threw out "denouement" in the context of a Diddy track. It's that good.

1. Timbaland, Keri Hilson & D.O.E., "The Way I Are." The first time I heard this track I was in hip hop. Within about 30 seconds, I thought to myself, oh, snap this song is good. Except instead of snap, I said shit. Tim takes his sweet time bringing in the beat, and when he does it's another staccato, chopped up tone like in a lot of his recent work. He kicks in some verses explaining how he has no money or wealth to offer his lady, and then he gives the four-word command that really sums up the musical year for me: "Talk to me, girl." And in response to this incantation: Keri comes swooping down on the electronic beat, multi-layered, hard to pinpoint for a moment, surrounding this song in this melodic tone, and kicks into her lines leading up to the chorus, all the while accented by these synthesizer curliques that keep the song bouncing upwards. The chorus has Keri and Tim (but a better sounding Tim) trading lines: "I like you just the way you are," "can you handle me the way I are?" Grammatics aside, the song rides this great beat, these quick, smart vocals with interior rhymes, those quirky repeating high notes, into a great little rap that ushers in a fantasic, easy-riding close to the song. I've heard this song hundreds of times now and it still feels fresh and fun. I relate to the message of the song, as much as it relates to cockiness without financial resources to back it up. I was shocked when the song became a hit and they started playing it out on the town; hearing it at the JT concert was a highlight of the night. In sum, this song is loose, upbeat, unserious, textured, flirtatious, humorous, and undeniable. Like a fine wine.

I like writing about music because I try to capture how a song hits me, but without the benefit of knowing what I'm talking about musically. I listened to all these songs as I wrote this stuff down, and obviously I could say a lot more about each one (perhaps that's why I'm doing this instead of writing about the transformative use doctrine in copyright). As difficult as it is to articulate why you love something, let me just say that these songs brightened my days this year and brought me a lot of joy.

Music makes me so damn happy.

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