cartwheels into your heart

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Another essay read for Squeezed, the monthly variety show I host:

The number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 this week is "Let Me Love You," a slow, simmering ballad by the 18-year-old R&B singer Mario. It's a perfectly inoffensive song, with nicely understated production (there's an occasional sighing guitar that reminds me of a similar effect in Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams"). But for all its classiness, I'm not sure what propelled it to the top of the charts. It’s sometimes hard to predict what will catch on. The first time I heard "Drop It Like It's Hot," the Snoop Dogg song built around manmade clucks and whistles, I was convinced it was way too minimal and weird to make any real impact. Yet it gradually inched toward number one, perhaps because people like me found its goofiness endearing, and it stayed there for three weeks, before "Let Me Love You" came along and knocked it off.

At this point, though, what would be more surprising is if a song from outside the world of hip-hop and R&B rose to the top. The last time that happened was in June 2003, when Clay Aiken's "This is the Night" occupied the number one slot for two weeks. Before that, it was "How You Remind Me," by Nickelback, in January 2002, meaning that it's been three whole years since a rock band held that lofty status.
It didn't always used to be this way. I remember following the charts as a kid and seeing top tens clustered with Europop, acoustic metal power ballads, aging baby-boomer rock comebacks, funky-lite party rap, and crooning adult-contemporary divas.

But then two things happened. First, whereas the Hot 100 chart once weighed radio airplay and retail sales equally, in 1998 Billboard shifted to a system that gave more credit to airplay. Radio being what it is, this development has tended to favor a more homogeneous set of songs in general. Second, as hip-hop became an increasingly dominant cultural force, the Top 40 stations that reported their playlists began to rely on artists like Nelly and Jay-Z more regularly -- and more importantly would no longer wait for these artists' songs to be broken first by exclusively urban stations. If a good portion of the dial is now playing the new Destiny’s Child single at the same time, that in turn has a pronounced effect on sales during the week, which (although factored less overall) can give a song just the extra push it needs to climb to the top.

The impact of this new direction was made clear in October 2003, when for the first time in the history of the Billboard charts, all ten songs in the top ten were by black artists. And yet while I'm happy for hip-hop's success and in fact think a lot of the recent crop of chart-toppers are really fantastic, I have to admit I do miss the days when the top ten was more of a bizarre melange. Fifteen years ago today, the number one song was Michael Bolton’s "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," and it was followed by singles from Technotronic, Phil Collins, Jody Watley, Rod Stewart, Janet Jackson, Lou Gramm, Tom Petty, Seduction, and Tesla.

It was right around that time, actually -- spurred by my burgeoning interest in both pop music and statistics -- that I began faithfully following the charts, with particular attention to the Hot 100 singles. Although the newspaper published the top ten, and I'd listen to Casey Kasem's Top 40 every Sunday morning, I’d also go to the public library almost every week to marvel at how the rest of the list shook out. Then I'd make a photocopy, which I took home, neatly folded and stapled, and added to the pile of past editions in my closet. By eighth grade, I had memorized the date of every number one for the past three years and would challenge people to stump me, including my middle-school principal, who complained, "How would I even know if you were right?"

My eventual drift away from chart-watching dovetailed, as one might expect, with a growing indifference and even derision toward commercial radio as I got older. But whereas my musical tastes developed gradually, with odd pit stops, I sort of trace my loss of interest in the charts to a single moment early in high school, when my friend Becky, an early adopter of indie rock, looked over my shoulder at the library Xerox machine and said, "Wow, so bad." If none of the music on the chart was in the slightest bit cool, what was I doing poring over its data?

Only recently have I begun to pay attention to Billboard again, though it's with much less fervor than when I was 13 and wrote a letter to the author of Billboard Top 1000 Singles to challenge his methodology. What still interests me about the Hot 100, though, is the notion that in any given week, the nation -- or at least the mainstream-radio-listening public --can be taken with one particular song. And what's more, glancing at a list of every song to reach that peak reveals in an instant the shape and trajectory of our collective listening habits over the past fifty years. Think about it: exactly 13 years ago, the number one song was "Black or White," by Michael Jackson. Eighteen years ago, it was "The Way You Make Me Feel," by Michael Jackson. Twenty-five years ago, it was "Rock With You," by Michael Jackson. And 35 years ago today, the number one song in America was "I Want You Back," by the Jackson Five.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

But don't take my word for it. Other wraps worth reading (that mostly shame me with their breadth and insight): Jess, Nate, and Matos.

2004: THE WRAP
albums | singles

I wrote this for the Village Voice, in the hopes that they'll excerpt comments for their annual Pazz and Jop music poll issue -- so if you notice that some of it's shamelessly plagiarized from a year's worth of old blog posts (including my recent top ten lists), well, that's purely intentional. Cheers!

For a lot of folks, 2004 will be remembered as the year indie rock went mainstream. Five years ago, I was listening to Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie with scrawny tight-shirted dudes in smoky off-campus basements; in the post-OC-ification of America, these bands are now being played by Ambercrombie-fitted jocks in perpetually sunny high-school hallways. It's not a bad thing: rock radio is better than it has been in a few years, and DCFC's bigger, more produced sound (on 2003's Transatlanticism) bodes for an interesting future. Modest Mouse, on the other hand, has surely made its most boring record (I can't stand those Tom Waits rip-offs), though I'd be a fool to say I disliked the shaky, Mary-Kate-and-Ashley-approved "Float On."

Everyone claims that Franz Ferdinand and the Killers are also benefiting from this indie-goes-mainstream trend, but I just can't imagine either of their stylish disco-inflected records as all that indie in the first place.

Truth is, I probably listened to less indie rock in 2004 than in any year since high school, mostly preferring pop and dance pleasures. Of the rock acts that did capture my attention, one was an old favorite: Sonic Youth did absolutely nothing new on Sonic Nurse, except perfect the loose guitar-army jams they've preferred since "The Diamond Sea," managing to sound both spirited and effortless.

Another, harpist Joanna Newsom, appealed to indie rockers but drew her inspiration from Dust Bowl-era folksingers and classical West African harp techniques. I saw her open for Will Oldham right before the hype swelled and was mesmerized by her intricate finger work and unique vocal delivery. Like a child, she murmurs one moment and shouts the next; her voice doesn't have much depth, but when it spills out, it's unabashedly generous and heartfelt. There's something quite precious about all this, of course, and I haven't even mentioned lyrics like "a thimblesworth of milky moon" or song titles like "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie." But the sort of precocious literariness Newsom puts on display in The Milk-Eyed Mender seems less a bid for cleverness and more an honest evocation of an interior world.

Newsom got lumped into the sub-genre of New American Folk, along with fellow California hippie poet Devendra Banhart, though his surreal lyrics and David Sedaris-as-Billie Holliday vocal style seemed somewhat forced and his two albums too fragmented. More interesting along similar lines was Animal Collective, whose Sung Tongs featured faux-naive campfire songs fractured and splayed by psychedelic multi-tracking. That album's weird studio-rigged pastoralism and occasional Beach Boys harmonies called to mind a druggier version of Brian Wilson's Smile, whose original charms were subverted by actually, finally putting the record together. I don't agree that the project was doomed from the start (some critics act like the 1966-67 recordings were infallible, the opium-induced dream in Coleridge's "Kublai Khan," where the 2004 version is the end of the poem, the more measured, faltering attempt to recapture what is gone). But for whatever reason, by streamlining the demos' absurd randomness, nu-Smile began to resemble nothing so much as a whimsical American musical revue. (And anyway, when I was in the mood for a convoluted pop narrative full of bizarre historical references, I turned to the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat.)

The new Wilco was frustrating, and ultimately I decided I liked the panic attacks (in the form of Crazy Horse-style freak-out guitar solos) better than the migraines (slow, dull murmuring silences). I finally came around on the Arcade Fire, after months of resistance, but I still think it's way overrated.

One of the trends that really got me going in 2004 was a resurgence of 1980s electro sounds, from the drippy synths on "Drop It Like It's Hot" (in which Snoop Dogg drawls over the sound of rising steam and Pharrell tongue-pops the beat like a Medulla outtake -- surely one of the strangest number ones in recent memory?) to Jacques LuCont's remix of Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For" (which trades the original's bratty cheerleader bop for an eight-minute-long wave of New Order electro-melancholy). Felix Da Housecat and Cut Copy both produced compelling full-lengths that trafficked in nostalgia for Nagel prints and leg-warmers, though the former was a stylized study of L.A. coke-and-neon glitz (perfect for the next Grand Theft Auto soundtrack!) and the latter wore its heart on its sleeve (and was the more consistent of the two records).

Also digging into the VH-1 crates were the Scissor Sisters, who mined Elton John, glam, and disco for a fun but ultimately superficial listen. (Although don't tell that to John Cameron Mitchell, who I hear already has them lined up to score Hedwig 2: The Inch Gets Angrier.) For me, the French band Phoenix was more satisfying in its retro pleasures: Alphabetical wed soft rock (late-era Steely Dan, Stevie Nicks-led Fleetwood Mac) to crisp hip-hop-inflected beats, reaching a high point on the playfully upbeat "Everything is Everything." Both Phoenix and their compatriots in Air delivered the kind of easy, friendly groove you might hear at a hip neighborhood boutique, but where Alphabetical was punchy and charismatic, Talkie Walkie was downright soporific.

The success of bands like Phoenix and the Scissor Sisters may have had something to do with the "indie rockers like to dance now" meme that first surfaced after "Hey Ya!" and "Crazy in Love" united all the world's people in 2003. For at least some people, though, the path to enlightenment was paved by smooth-voiced Norwegian folkie Erlend Øye, whose marvelous entry into the DJ Kicks series brought Kompakt-label microhouse (Justus Köhncke, Jürgen Paape) to the attention of Kings of Convenience fans. (And thankfully so: Øye's band's album was a snoozer, with the exception of the lovely "Misread" and the thrilling bossanova "I'd Rather Dance With You.") Others waded through the hype on blogs and online message boards to find Junior Boys, whose Last Exit was hands down my favorite record of 2004. Though vocalist Jeremy Greenspan is a pudgy, trucker-hat-donning white guy from Ontario, on record his gently desperate sighs mixed gorgeously with stark electro beats and trickling synths, leading critics to describe the record as Hall and Oates-meets-Timbaland.

Tim Mosley himself was noticeably absent from the scene in 2004, but commercial hip-hop still thrived. Likely Pazz & Jop victor Kanye West scored with four singles from The College Dropout, a smart, relaxed album that held up despite a few too many muddled skits. Of West's biggest hits, I liked "Slow Jamz" -- the funny paean to quiet-storm vocalists -- better than the furrowed-brow gospel march "Jesus Walks." Part of it had to do with a guest spot from speed-rapper Twista, who emerged as my favorite MC of the year. On "Overnight Celebrity" Twista borrowed West's sped-up soul sample gimmick to reflect on his own sudden fame. And though I've always been somewhat indifferent to crunk, Trick Daddy's "Let's Go" artfully mixed Twista's sharply enunciated flow with Lil Jon's trademark guttural shouts and a persistent Ozzy Osbourne sample. Apart from being roasted on Chappelle's Show, Lil Jon's shining moment of the year was breathing life into Usher's career on "Yeah!", an interesting marriage between crunk and soul but one that ultimately felt limp to me. Still, it beat Usher's follow-up singles, "Burn" and "Confessions Pt. 2," which I couldn't tell the difference between.

My three favorite R&B songs of the year were Christina Milian's sexy "Dip It Low," Nina Sky's non-chalant Latin boombox groove "Move Ya Body," and Janet Jackson's criminally underplayed "All Nite (Don't Stop)."

I can't understand 80 percent of what either M.I.A. (in "Galang") or Dizzee Rascal (in "Stand Up Tall") are saying over the standard-issue grime elements in both songs -- distorted rattling beats and low, squelching Nintendo keyboards -- but I don't care, since it's such cheerful nonsense they're shouting. Dizzee's yelping pronunciation of "Chinese suits" wins me over; ditto M.I.A.'s sleek British-via-Sri Lanka accent on her skip-rope sing-along: "Ya ya yay! Ya ya hey! Whoa-oh-ay-oh!"

Britney Spears got married (twice!) and still put out the best single of the year ("Toxic"), a sugar rush in which her usual fembot persona gets breathy and light-headed amidst swooping Bernard Herrmann strings and 007 stuttering guitar. Jessica Simpson bragged about going bottomless on the infectious "With You," while her sister Ashlee cutely mimicked Suzanne Vega on "Pieces on Me" before giving into the Matrix. At year's end, the pop singer with the most promise was Annie, whose import-only debut, Anniemal, was crammed with hooks, including the bittersweet "Heartbeat."

In the badass-old-ladies comeback sweepstakes, 64-year-old Nancy Sinatra's record was better than 70-year-old Loretta Lynn's. The fact that critics largely preferred the one produced by future rock legend/treasurer of authenticity Jack White to the one that credits at least fifteen songwriters on its sleeve might be chalked up to the scourge of "rockism" than Kelefa Sanneh alerted us all to in the New York Times. The attitude that Sanneh described has been around since the early 1980s at the very least, but his impassioned defense of Christina Aguilera sparked a fun if sometimes tiresome debate among music scribes toward the end of the year. (I wonder if Sanneh's apoplectic readers calmed down when they saw that his year-end top ten included such hipster humanities-grad faves as Joanna Newsom, Modest Mouse, and the Arcade Fire.)

Lastly, the digital revolution continued on its merry way in 2004. I've been using iTunes for a while, but I recently bought an iPod so I could listen to music at work, and now the only time I have reason to touch actual CDs after I buy them is when I put on music next to my bed while I'm falling asleep (or sometimes in the shower). I've never even seen a physical copy of one of my favorite records of the year: United State of Electronica put the entirety of its D.I.Y. disco debut on its website to download for free. Since most of my CDs end of strewn across my living room anyway, this trend is more than all right with me.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Runners up: 11. Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat, 12. Azita, Life on the Fly, 13. Cut Copy, Bright Like Neon Love, 14. Annie, Anniemal, 15. Felix Da Housecat, Devin Dazzle and the Neon Fever, 16. The Arcade Fire, Funeral, 17. RJD2, Since We Last Spoke, 18. Brian Wilson, Smile, 19. Wilco, A Ghost is Born, 20. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters


10. United State of Electronica, United State of Electronica (Sonic Boom)

Nate Patrin recently described U.S.E. as "the Ramones for Daft Punk fans," which I think gets to the heart of the band's aesthetic: it's sweet and shiny vocoder disco but with a D.I.Y. party spirit, which means lots of feel-good shouting and ample fist-pumping. The key moment for me was seeing the band live in October at a gleaming white gallery space in Tribeca, NYC. Though I already liked the record (which astute sidebar-readers will note sneaked into my top ten at the last minute), I was captivated by the sheer energy and commitment the septet displayed on stage -- especially the backup singer rocking huge hoop earrings and striped athletic socks in high heels! I joined in their series of gleeful shout-outs to Seattle neighborhoods I've never visited -- "Capitol Hill? We love it!" -- and by the end of the set had a big dumb grin smeared over my sweat-soaked face.

9. Animal Collective, Sung Tongs (Fat Cat)

It's hard to describe Animal Collective without going overboard on the seeming mysticism the band evokes through its childlike rhymes and wild-man whoops, its droning acoustic guitars and echoey percussion, all fractured and splayed through psychedelic multi-tracking. It's tempting to conjure an imaginary moonlit woodland scene where a band of happy sprites dance around beaver skins and tap on tree trunks, lapping up water from the nearby river. Of course, you know it's all just a well-structured exercise in faux-naivete, but when you're stoned on a late autumn evening, and the constant strumming on the twelve-minute "Visiting Friends" turns into a beautiful trance, and the harmonies on "College" sound oddly like the Beach Boys gone snorkeling, you truly believe in this record, too.

8. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

Oh boy. So here's where I get chewed out for including Kanye as the token hip-hop act on my list (and in the #8 spot, no less). It's true that I didn't hear that many rap albums in 2004, but that doesn't change the fact that The College Dropout is a likeable, confident set from the genre's premier producer these days, with depth well beyond the four winning singles it spawned. I'm particularly impressed with the record's variety: it veers from straight-up gospel cuts ("I'll Fly Away") to smiling ghetto-kid choruses ("We Don't Care") to a hilarious mock-aerobic drill with rave-up electric violin ("The New Workout Plan"), all held together by Kanye's relaxed flow and, frequently, the sped-up soul samples he's become famous for. Predictably, it's marred by the anti-education skits threaded between tracks, which come across as muddled. But there's a perfectly good reason this record will probably top Pazz and Jop this year: quite simply, there's a lot to like about it.

7. Erlend Øye, DJ Kicks (!K7)

In this year of accelerating iPod adoption, Erlend Øye made the best playlist, a DJ mix careening from screechy dance-punk act the Rapture and pop stylists Phoenix (see #3) to bouncy Kompakt-label microhouse courtesy Justus Köhncke and Jürgen Paape. I've heard purists complain that Øye's beat-matching is sub-par (I wouldn't know), but surely that's not the point of this mix, where Øye's enthusiasm is such that he can't help eagerly singing over the tracks he's spinning (most notably "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" over Röyksopp's "Poor Leno"). As a recent convert to some of Øye's source material myself, I like imagining the fans of his folk duo Kings of Convenience discovering a lot of great joyful dance music through this record. (And if my friend Mark is any indication, it's already happened.)

6. Luomo, The Present Lover (Kinetic)

The Present Lover hasn't gotten too much attention on 2004 lists, not because it doesn't merit it, but because most critics who cared enough about this Finnish house DJ already acquired the album upon its original release in 2003. (It only came out in the U.S. in March.) It was on the advice of those critics that I picked it up, only to remain baffled for months as to why it was supposed to be so amazing. And then one day it just ... clicked. There's a remarkable fluidity to this record that's partially explained by its non-stop dance beats (after all, it's house music) but also by its jazzy, submerged bass lines and androgynous-cyborg vocals, which float and echo like dreams. But there are also unexpected pleasures, like when the shuffling beat of "So You" drops out in favor of a reggae-ish drawbar organ part, or the thrilling rise of the key change in "What Good." In October, thinking of the record's sparkling, wintry qualities, I wrote that it "glitters like a Russian dance club at dawn, emptied of models whose mascara starts streaking from the snowflakes outside." Yes.

5. Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)

Loyal reader Eric Z. recently alerted me to Toronto Globe and Mail critic Carl Wilson's refreshing take on Newsom; he defends the singer/harpist from both her "boy, that voice is annoying" detractors and her "oh, she's just a cute little elf" fans by emphasizing how her music is grounded in American minimalist and West African traditions. I made the minimalist connection at least when I wrote about her mesmerizing live show this past spring.

4. Bark Psychosis, Codename: Dustsucker (Fire)

The perfect nexus between the heady post-rock I adored in college (Tortoise) and the sad shoegazer I've recently been discovering (Slowdive). I like it even more now that I'm not reviewing it and looking for places to poke holes.

3. Phoenix, Alphabetical (Source/Astralwerks)

I don't generally like the idea of certain albums precluding other albums (I have room for both the Strokes and the VU in my life, thank you), but I have to admit that once I heard Alphabetical, I pretty much stopped listening to that new Air album altogether. Both French bands deliver the kind of easy, friendly groove that you might hear at that hip neighborhood boutique, and both records even feature a song where the chorus consists mostly of the repeated word "run" -- but Phoenix is simply punchier and more charismatic. Since the more eclectic (but less cohesive) United, the group's calling card has been marrying soft rock (late-era Steely Dan, Stevie Nicks-led Fleetwood Mac) to immaculate modern production (they claim Dr. Dre as an influence). You can hear plenty of crisp hip-hop-inflected beats throughout Alphabetical, but also listen to the space around the slowly rocking piano line in "Love For Granted" to see how nuanced they can be. And when singer Thomas Mars's usually milky voice slips into a sexy growl, I find them impossibly charming.

2. Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse (Geffen)

Sometimes after just a few albums, bands begin to sour on me. I don't think Stereolab's new Margerine Eclipse is a particularly bad record; I probably just overdosed on them a while back and now everything they do just seems tired. So it's a surprise to me that the new album by Sonic Youth, whom I've loved now for over ten years, is my favorite of theirs since Washing Machine. That record's final track, "The Diamond Sea," launched the template for much of their recent output: a loose, hazy, jammy style that could achieve a certain dreamy transcendence but just as often seemed tepid or bloated. Sonic Nurse does absolutely nothing new but perfects that form in a way that sounds both spirited and effortless. Songs routinely exceed the six-minute mark but never feel excessive; even during long, mazy guitar solos shot through with noise, the band for the first time in a while sounds entirely at ease.

1. Junior Boys, Last Exit (Kin)

I was recently challenged on my love for Junior Boys from someone unimpressed with Last Exit, and I had to admit that the record wowed me in part because it fuses some of my favorite musical elements in just the right way. I'm drawn to its claustrophobic, soft-spoken sadness just as I was to Tara Jane O'Neil's backwoods gem Peregrine four years ago, but Last Exit also satisfies my current digital fixation with its stark electro beats and bleeping synths trickling over static. Based on its heartbreaking melodies and electronic trickery, I've sometimes found myself calling it a synth-pop record, but that's not quite right. "High Come Down" borrows from the icy style of UK garage, with tripping pinball rhythms; the title track is beautifully spacious and austere, like a silent frozen pond. Rather, it's the kind of record that one seeks solace in: the kind of record I listened to on lonely train rides, the kind of record that after long nights I took to bed with me, my most privately loved record all year.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

As I try to finish up some final 2004-in-review posts, you should all read the Slate Movie Club, an e-mail exchange among several notable critics about the year in film. I always look forward to this annual dialogue not just because of the lively writing because it's a reminder that criticism need not be restricted to the false confidence of structured reviews, and that it's often at its best when it openly debates and engages with opposite perspectives. This year the group takes a day or two to get out of the gate, reveling too long in their Manhattan bonhomie (at least when Armond White is not formulating a new acidic barb), but as soon as the lesser-known critics show up, it's a fascinating read.

Also, I think that David Edelstein is now my favorite film critic. He has a nebbishy honesty that I really sympathize with (I love his digression on dirty talk in his review of Closer), and plus he neatly summed up my thoughts on Vera Drake in a two-sentence parenthetical! ("I loved the first half but felt that Mike Leigh was a victim of his own rigorous naturalism in the second. I wanted the drama to do more than just play itself out.") Yes yes yes.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Check out the Top 11 Singles of 2004 from Rarified Air (a/k/a my brother Mark). I'm curious about some of those tracks I haven't yet heard.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Here's some tunes I liked.

10. M.I.A., "Galang" (XL) and Dizzee Rascal, "Stand Up Tall" (XL)
I can't understand 80 percent of what either Maya Arulpragasam or Dylan Mills are saying over the standard-issue grime elements in these songs -- distorted rattling beats and low, squelching Nintendo keyboards -- but I don't care, since it's such cheerful nonsense they're shouting. Dizzee's yelping pronunciation of "Chinese suits" wins me over; ditto M.I.A.'s sleek British-via-Sri Lanka accent on her skip-rope sing-along: "Ya ya yay! Ya ya hey! Whoa-oh-ay-oh!"

9. Velvetron, "Snooze Bar" (self-released)

Along with the jagged, jazzy Changes, Velvetron is my favorite unsigned local band, a quartet of fresh college graduates clearly influenced by late-nineties post-rock and lounge-pop (their instrumental "One to Ten" channels Stereolab). As an unabashed fan of that stuff, it's been fun watching Velvetron reconstitute it for the next generation of Chicago indie rock. (I guess here's where I place the disclaimer that my own band has shared bills with them and performed at their home venue, the Ice Factory). As I noted on Fluxblog, "Snooze Bar," with its fluid Juno synth, cheap drum-machine kicks, and dropped-out-of-bed vocals, "shimmers like the Sea and Cake at a late-summer beach picnic."

8. Hip-Hop Radio Hits
I always have a difficult time integrating songs I hear primarily on the radio with the other songs on my top ten. They're not as high on my iTunes Most Played list, and yet in some cases, I've actually listened to them more frequently, driving the streets of Chicago and scanning the dial. Six songs that prompted me to turn up the volume and boost the bass: Christina Milian's sexy "Dip It Low" (catch that "pop-pop-pop"); Nina Sky's non-chalant Latin front-porch groove "Move Ya Body" (ft. Jabba); "Drop It Like It's Hot," in which Snoop Dogg drawls over the sound of rising steam and Pharrell tongue-pops the beat like a Medulla outtake; Trick Daddy's "Let's Go," which roused me from my indifference to crunk with a cameo from speed-rapper Twista (alongside Lil Jon's guttural shouts) and a backing track from Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train"; Twista's own "Slow Jamz" (ft. Kanye West and Jamie Foxx), a funny paean to quiet-storm vocalists that simultaneously parodies and embraces that genre; and Kanye West's gospel march "Jesus Walks."

7. Animal Collective, "Who Could Win a Rabbit" (Fat Cat)

The most eagerly joyful song on Sung Tongs, "Who Could Win a Rabbit" follows the tripped-out, equally stimulating "Leaf House" with a vigorous campfire sing-along, complete with a burst of restlessly strummed guitars and a steady sheet of shakers. The ensuing babble is highly infectious, too: many times I've caught myself whisper-singing "hungry bread-and-butter hustle" or, simply, "a rabbit, a habit, a rabbit, a habit," like it was some kind of weird nature-kid mantra.

6. Phoenix, "Everything is Everything" (Source/Astralwerks)

If there's one thing the French love, it's empty slogans. The pleasant abstractions of their revolution's cri de coeur, "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité," simply can't compete with our far more explicit "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" Indeed, the apparent sentiment expressed in the lead-off track from Phoenix's Alphabetical is akin to Bernard Jaffe's "blanket" philosophy in I Heart Huckabees: "This is me, this is you, and over here, this is the Eiffel Tower, right, it's Paris!" But there's also a comfort in this all-is-one attitude, and when it's embedded in a playfully upbeat pop song, with a syncopated Spanish-guitar swagger reminiscent of Justin Timberlake's brilliant "Like I Love You," I am very much at peace.

5. Jon Brion, "Phone Call" (Hollywood)

Not technically a single, but still the prettiest one minute of music I heard all year.

4. Gwen Stefani, "What You Waiting For" (Interscope)

Gwen Stefani's solo debut single is a brash and bratty attack on fake Hollywood glitz, the possible irony being that she sounds no less sleazy than whatever phony glam-girls she aims to excoriate. The pounding beats and sizzling neon synths even recall another hi-gloss Los Angeles song from 2004: Felix Da Housecat's deliberately vapid "Everyone is Someone in L.A." But the song is also hella fun (and that's sorta the point). Check the B-52s swipe when Gwen chirps "oh, ah-oh." And then download the Jacques LuCont remix, which trades the original's cheerleader bop for an eight-minute-long wave of New Order electro-melancholy, culminating in a cool-down section that sounds exactly like the end of "Hyperballad." I'm in love with both.

3. Kings of Convenience, "I'd Rather Dance With You" (Astralwerks)

Erlend Øye's foray into the DJ game had a lot of people wondering whether any of it would rub off onto the latest Kings of Convenience record. For the most part, it didn't, with the wonderful exception of this cut, an uptempo bossanova anchored by a rhythmic string quartet. The scene is a party or a club, and the woman that Øye's flirting with is presumably of the "fit but she's chatty" sort. The straightforward shut-up-and-dance strategy that our narrator adopts provides a nice counterpoint to the song's sophisticated pizzicato bounce. Apart from the lovely "Misread," no other track on the sorta-boring Riot On an Empty Street even matches its heights.

2. Annie, "Heartbeat" (679)

It's a little over three minutes, but Annie's bittersweet tribute to the thrills of new love always feels too short to me. But in a way, maybe that's appropriate for a song about something so ephemeral as a sudden flutter in the heart. From the moment we hear Annie's kittenish sing-song and pitter-patter, it's not long before the drums overwhelm her, thumping at a constant 128 BPM: nice trick. What infuses "Heartbeat" with such emotion, though, is that first phrase: "there was a time" -- as though her love is but a distant memory, only recollected through echoes of its physical sensations. Beautiful and heartbreaking.

1. Britney Spears, "Toxic" (Jive)

Twice in the last two months I have heard the opening strains of "Toxic" at a party and immediately jumped up and down, hooted, flailed my arms, put on a shrieking falsetto, twisted my hips, and just plain danced, bad ankles be damned. Last February, I described Britney's appealing role in the song as that of a "breathy machine, getting light-headed ... amidst swooping Bernard Herrmann strings and 007 stuttering twang-guitar." Later in the year, Local H's awesomely faithful crunch-rock cover only reinforced my belief that "Toxic" is a great composition, too. Though I first heard it in late 2003, no other single this year won me over so completely.