The Quarter Pole: October 2008 Monday, October 20, 2008Posted by Andy Hutchins in 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Rockabye, The Quarter Pole.
Wow: we’re about three-quarters through 2008. And because I am a blogger and enjoy both creating arbitrary segments of time for my own writing purposes and the compilation of shamelessly subjective lists, I have (yet another) one of the latter for one of the former.
Fun stuff if you follow.
My Ten Songs of the Summer
Remember that I promised this?
10. “No Air,” Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown
It peaked a bit early for this countdown, but I’m putting it here because my voice of reason on what girls like, the Rockette, loves it. I have to give it props as a nice, floaty R&B ballad and duet, a trick that I wasn’t sure Brown had in his repertoire and one Sparks is at her best doing, but I could probably go a couple months without hearing it again.
9. “A Milli,” Lil Wayne
Speaking of songs I could deal without hearing for a while, this beat is like the most obnoxious white noise in the world. I have a mixtape full of freestyles over it on my laptop; I’ve listened to Wayne’s versions literally dozens of times, and I have six of those on the hard drive; I’ve watched the video more than once just to figure out who greenlit that one. And yet, though I’m sort of sick of the song, the lyrics stick, perfectly matched to the growl they’re delivered in as they are, and, yeah, in some ways socially reprehensible (I’m looking at you, ignorant line about Dennis Rodman). I’m certainly not alone in this. Congratulations to Weezy for that one.
8. “Put On,” Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West
It’s the beginning of the reign of Drumma Boy as a producer, I’m sure, which means that little flourish at the beginning will appear on about twenty songs I hear between now and 2009, but this one’s tailored to Jeezy’s specifications, and LenDale White’s mirror image (I’m not kidding, go look) goes on about vegetables and super-everything with yet another street anthem. Kanye, of course, debuts his Auto-Tuned cries of anguish in a wrenching, searching verse that goes from swagger to self-doubt as the loudest parts of the beat fade away, and he’s the highlight here, but there’s no lowlight on this one.
7. “All Summer Long,” Kid Rock
It’s “Werewolves of Alabama,” yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song. It’s cheating a bit by actually being about summer and then referencing part of its musical lineage as what summer sounds like, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a groove that a thousand other artists would love to have.
Look, it’s easy to knock this because it’s Kid Rock. But I’m just happy that when we’re pilfering things from the past, they’re as good as the immaculate “Sweet Home Alabama” riff and Warren Zevon’s work on the keys, and they meld as well as this.
6. “Viva la Vida,” Coldplay
I explain more of its appeal a ways down there, but suffice to say in a career filled with epics, this is one of the brassiest tunes Coldplay have ever crafted. It’s as esoteric as all get out and got sabotaged as a candidate for this competition by an early release and iPod-propelled rise that gave it too much airplay before it really hit radio, but when it does come on, you sing along.
5. “Disturbia,” Rihanna
This one’s going to stay a special one for me because it’s the one song that kept popping up and making my head bob when I first started driving by myself this summer, but it’s got the sort of soft-loud-soft pattern that makes for crescendos like the spiraling chorus here and the spooky refrain is one of the most fun things to hum in years. I am docking this points because the video is just stupid; I don’t care how petty that is.
4. “I Kissed a Girl,” Katy Perry
The electro-stomp that we’ll be hearing for another year or so at least has a catchy chorus behind it. It’s something else for little kids to be learning about lesbianism through the words of the plastic doll made up in whatever seems to be hip today that is Katy Perry, and another for this sort of cheap, disposable, exploitative pop to rule the airwaves. But, really, there was nothing bigger than this one this summer, and it’s not like you, I, or anyone will forget it. Only the gulf in quality betwixt it and the rest of this top ten (and, yeah, for every one of these songs, it’s a gulf) keep it from going higher.
3. “Closer,” Ne-Yo
I’ve been on Ne-Yo’s bandwagon since it was a Red Rider, but there’s three basic facts about the man: he’s a wizard with a pen, as artful as Seurat with his meticulously done lyrics; he plays debonair and aloof with equal grace; he’s most at home not doing traditional R&B, but more uptempo dance-ready fare. “Closer” gives him a chance to reinforce all of those, and it’s propped up by the best beat he’s ever been on, a delight of minor chords and fuzzy bits. I could hear this another forty times and still love it, too, and that’s the thing it has over most of this list.
2. “American Boy,” Estelle feat. Kanye West
It’s breezier than a day on Cape Cod or the Hamptons, has absolutely no ballast in the form of Kanye psychodrama, and has those marvelous buzzing notes. “American Boy” is a near-perfect cruising tune, one that focuses on the sort of flirtations that mark summer romances and the production deliberately makes lightness its imprint; for that, it’s good. But it’s Estelle’s and Kanye’s fun, playful interplay that make this work as well as it does; the best rap guest appearances are almost always ones that wrap around and interact with the sung parts of a song, and this one fits so snugly the song wouldn’t be anything near what it is without a line about WAGs from the guy who did “Gold Digger.”
1. “Paper Planes,” M.I.A.
Thank God for that “Pineapple Express” trailer.
“Paper Planes” was the gauzy and pitch-perfect soundtrack for that bit of madcap mayhem. It got that foothold, then slowly, through back channels and the iPods of college kids like me, rose late in the summer on the charts; it currently sits at #4. It wouldn’t qualify on a lot of lists, disqualified for coming out in 2007 on Kala, or for peaking too late to be a Song of Summer this year, but, hey, this list’s just mine.
It’s a sing-songy, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the life of an immigrant, a bit of parody that at least half its audience misses and that would terrify conservative literalists who would decry a song talking about “sticks and stones and weed and bones,” gunshots backing threats of “lethal poison for the system” and a bridge of “some, some, some of them I murder.” But there’s no denying the hypnotic power of the piercing violin quaver and simple riff borrowed from The Clash, and occasional snaps that are the backbone of “Paper Planes”; it’s impossibly virulent, one of those songs that turns earworm into a week-long disorder.
And yet, it’s colossal enough to serve as anthem. For that, for its musical genius, for its deft bit of satire, and because I didn’t go more than a couple of days without hearing it this summer if I could help it, “Paper Planes” is my 2008 Song of the Summer.
My Ten Other Contenders
These could have been contenders for that spot above, but the timing was wrong or they just got slept on. And that doesn’t mean they’re not great; it certainly doesn’t mean you won’t see them again.
- “See You Again,” Miley Cyrus
- “Swagga Like Us (S.L.U.),” Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, T.I.
- “Coconut Juice (Remix),” Tyga feat. Lil Wayne, Rich Boy
- “Shake It,” Metro Station
- “Just Dance,” Lady GaGa feat. Colby O’Donis
- “Hero,” Nas feat. Keri Hilson
- “What You Got,” Colby O’Donis feat. Akon
- “Hot N Cold,” Katy Perry
- “Energy,” Keri Hilson”
- “Love Lockdown,” Kanye West
Summer Season MVP Voting
3. Max Martin
The guy who invented the Swedish Svengali shtick was as zeitgeisty as it got this summer, penning “I Kissed a Girl” and “Hot N Cold” for Katy Perry and “So What” for Pink, going from lesbian-baiting to exhilarated brat-rock in the course of a season and leasing a timeshare in the Top 10. It’s not as if these are great pop songs, though a case could be made for “Hot N Cold,” but they’re certainly hook-heavy, catchy as Brian Anderson, and anthemic enough for summer.
2. Barack Obama
While he’s not producing any music of his own, he’s responsible for maybe the greatest surge in political involvement or faux-activism in hip-hop and music in a long while. Look up and down the roster: you’ve got Kanye performing at the DNC, whoever this is doing whatever that is, Jigga talking up Obama in concerts from Miami to Glastonbury, a campaign-endorsed CD, and Crooked I’s new mixtape is called The Block Obama, which is a phrase I guarantee no one will ever co-opt.
And the Piano Man, and the Boss, and Barbra, and Hova (in swing states!) are all doing shows for the man and for voter registration. Dude has pop culture on lock. (And considering that rhymes with Barack, check a radio near you for that line.)
1. Kanye West
Kanye went nova last year. This year, he’s almost gone Hova.
He’s the guest rapper on one of the best pop songs of the summer in “American Boy,” talking all breezy, and overshadows two good Jeezy verses on the massive “Put On” with a tortured, Auto-Tuned gem (which spawned this, need I remind you), grabbed the line from “Paper Planes” and worked it into “Swagger Like Us,” which will get a second life this winter, and, oh, it was his music that MTV needed to keep people interested in the VMAs, not Britney’s.
And how cool is ‘Ye? Two anecdotes:
From Maya Arulpragasam herself:
“Kanye e-mailed me back in, like, Christmas and told me he listens to ‘Paper Planes’ every day,” she said. He recently hit her up with an early version of “Swagger Like Us.”
So he was in with the rest of the hipster blogosphere and not on the “Pineapple Express” train.
And from the files of the awesome, a quote from none other than Jenny Lewis:
We missed our flight and had to wait a couple of hours in the lounge. I noticed Kanye West was waiting for the same flight. He looked over and said, ‘Excuse me, would you mind listening to my new track?’ And so he put his headphones on my head and I listened to two of his new songs. He had no idea who I was. I guess he was doing research.
Basically, Kanye’s a savvy enough music listener to have been jockin’ M.I.A. since at least Kala came out, and a big enough star that the lead singer of one of the biggest indie bands around doesn’t even register with him. And I haven’t even typed about his paparazzi troubles, which would further cement his Hollywood cred, or that puppet-based Comedy Central show, or his involvement with Obama, that other huge Chi-town shadow looming over America this fall.
I’m on record here about 808s and Heartbreak, but just typing all this gets me a bit more hyped. Kanye West occupies as large a plot in the pop culture neighborhood right now as any one person in recent memory has, and he’s yet to disappoint: I like what he’s done with the place.
My Top Two Videos of the Summer
T.I., “No Matter What”
As intensely personal as it gets in hip-hop, with Clifford standing alone and defiant in a warehouse with clips of his life, standing alone and defiant in what could be a hall of mirrors as lights flash, and standing alone and defiant in an upward-moving elevator as slat-sized bars of light fall on his face. He’s mugging, play-acting his lyrics, and soliloquizing about his troubles, then, in a flourish that equals the climax of the third verse and the musical shift, he opens up the elevator and reveals his crew, snarling behind him. For a guy who’s spent his musical career vacillating between being on the come-up and loving it to being on top and protecting that, this song and video straddles the line well.
Pink, “So What”
Alecia Moore’s at her best when she’s a little unhinged: this was the case with “Get the Party Started,” one of the better songs of the century, “Stupid Girls,” “U + Ur Hand,” and “Lady Marmalade.”
So going off the deep end, as she does in the video for “So What,” works to perfection. She’s in a music store beating a clerk with a guitar! She’s driving a lawnmower down Sunset Boulevard! She’s chainsawing down that tree with the heart on it! She’s frying her hair! She’s doing that nutty head-bob, stop-motion thing! She’s yelling into the mic at a club as flames jut behind her! It’s all par for the psychotic course.
But the raspberry at the end? That’s genius.
The Most Awesome Video of Forever
Sean Puff Puffy P. Diddy Daddy Combs, “Swagga Like Puff”
The man has balls, certainly. The gunshots at the beginning, even with the play-acting, are cliche. The lyrics make little to no sense, and are nothing worth a mention, really, starting with rhyming “building” with “building,” though I’ll admit “I’m on Forbes Top 100/You on Forbes Top Nothing” is a nice one-off. The sunglasses inside are just corny. The head-bobbing could look stupid, but it’s infectious. The Froot Loops with OJ, though, that’s the sign this could be an epic video.
Then he gets out of his chair, swings the computer/camera, inadvertently clears the part of the room where other people were, starts dancing in a T-shirt and sweats like some bizarre combo of T-Pain and Jennifer Beals, spins around, hopping on one foot, takes the computer/camera for another ride, dances some more, and, then, when the beat drops, mugs for the camera like nothing happened.
I can’t watch this video without cracking up, and neither will you, I’d hope.
Three Bands I Swear I Will Listen To Sometime, But Still Haven’t Listened To Yet
- TV On the Radio
- The Hold Steady
- Fleet Foxes
Three Albums I Have On My Computer (No, Really)
- One of the Boys, Katy Perry
- A Little Bit Longer, The Jonas Brothers
- Breakout, Miley Cyrus
I did one of these dueling divas things before, and I need not link to it, but Britney and Christina may be competing on the charts in a couple of weeks as their latest singles catch.
“Womanizer” continues the roll Britney started with Blackout, buzzing in with alarms of synth, devolving to a quick-step bass line, Ms. Spears’ highly modified voice slithering over surprisingly eloquent verses and filleting the sad sap she’s got her sights on; the style of “Keeps Getting Better” sets Mrs. Aguilera on the same path, but her vocals sound like a restrained belt, as if, rightly, her powerful voice feels wasted on the sort of cooing anyone can do. So, on vocals, “Womanizer” wins.
The concept of “Womanizer,” though, is just the inverse of “Toxic,” instead of calling the scoundrel she’s hooking up with a poison, older, wiser Britney calling it as she sees it; “Keeps Getting Better” at least tries to come up with something new, casting Xtina as Superbitch/Supergirl and carrying the mask-and-cape metaphor throughout.
Where the decision must come is on pop chops, and though “Keeps Getting Better” is going to have a few people giving “Hooooold on” a try or two, the stuttering undulations of “Womanizer” were designed for clubbers my age to sing whilst pointing at an equally soused friend, and they’re potent.
The Five Best Radio Moments This Summer
5. The entirety of “Viva la Vida.” The entire song is meant for windows-down blasting, from the itinerant strings to the gliding bit between the second chorus and third verse, and despite the esoteric lyrics and, I’d argue, an iPod ad that pushed it out too soon, it was a fixture for a while; it’s this low because it’s disappeared as quickly as it rose.
4. The chorus of “Paper Planes.” I would rank this higher, but, really, no one heard this on the radio this summer. The first time I heard it on the radio was two Sundays ago, and I’ve always got Top 40 on if I can help it.
3. The hook of “Closer.” As the phrase “And I just can’t pull myself away” lilts in, gloriously tinny stabs of synth come in underneath it, and then the drum machine kicks in to take it out; it’s irresistible.
2. The “bum bum BEE dum, bum bum bee DUM bum” in “Disturbia.” Try not singing/humming along to that.
1. The lilting “You’ll be my American boy” from, uh, “American Boy.” The thing that made that song different from the rest of the synthy stomps this summer was its flirty, floaty spirit, and that line encapsulates it perfectly.
My Favorite Songs of the Summer
Note that these are just my favorite songs this summer, not the Songs of the Summer.
Weezy’s verse is absurd, all William Blake references and his own creative way of saying “I’m rich” (“I am from the jungle where the lion eat the cob-a-ruh/And I get money, got a no money phobia/Tyga, tyga, what it do,” “Make the money chase its shadow/Call it dollar after dollar”), the beat gets a killer keyboard riff over its crashing drum-and-clap that defined the original, Rich Boy gets something to do with his life, and there are not one, but two Oprah references. Plus, it’s impossible to exile from your subconscious.
I realize it’s only maybe a dicey connection to this summer, but I really listened to In Rainbows for the first time early this summer, and I was blown away by how tender and fragile it was. It’s a sparse landscape of love, to be sure, and a musically interesting song, constructed delicately in a way that many contemporary songs are not. But the draw, as frequently is the case with Radiohead, is Thom Yorke’s voice, and the emotion he suffuses “The infrastructure will collapse/Voltage travels” with is powerful.
Miley’s big brother, Trace, and his L.A.-pop buddies (including another sibling of a Hannah Montana cast member) make a guitar-and-drums paean about one of those nights at a club that culminates in a magical speed-plinking session during the bridge and the fantastic titular two-word hook. It’s lightweight and it’s not really going to be well-remembered in 2009, or, maybe, in December, but what a party jam this is.
I will never for the life of me know how this didn’t just catch fire and soundtrack this summer. Never. It’s got a loud, gleaming, whirring beat with thunderous marching band drums courtesy of Polow da Don, Keri Hilson on the ad-libs and the backing vocals, that snarl to announce it, and Nas going as poppy-anthemic as he can while keeping it street and doling out threats (“Rubber-grip holder, reloader/Come at me, I’ma rip your soldiers in half/Silverback ape, nickel-plated mag”) with the same gusto as his righteous anger about censorship (“If Nas can’t say a thing about these talented kids/With new ideas/Being told what they can and can’t spit”). It’s a swagger song like the one two spots down, but it lacks the one gem of a verse that one has; still, this is as good a song as anything out this summer, and it got slept on.
I’m sort of mad that swagger gained an in in its bid to become the most overused word in the worlds of hip-hop and sport, but there’s not much to trifle with here.
Kanye turns a throwaway line from “Paper Planes” to a mantra, a chant, and a razor-sharp hook, adds a drum barrage, dashes in at once majestic and molten synth and bass, tosses in that takeoff roar that will propel this to immortality in concert, and begins and ends it with the line taking center stage. It’s going to be one of the five best beats of the year, but that’s another article entirely.
‘Ye then puts together a sheet of quotables in his verse (“Ay, yo, I know I got it first/I’m Christopher Columbus, y’all just the Pilgrims,” “Tryna get that Kobe number/One over Jordan,” “‘Cause I slaved my whole life/Now I’m the master”), Jay dumps one classic one-liner (“You can pay for school but you can’t buy class”) into a mostly forgettable bit of braggadocio, and Wayne does whatever he does with an Auto-Tuner and some promethazine to less result than usual, yapping about a “swagger dagger” and delivering the delicious double entendre “Write your name on the bullet/Make you feel special,” but Clifford Harris commits grand theft on this one.
Maybe it’s because it’s on his album, but Tip comes with an SAT’s worth of multisyllabic tricks, cites his cohorts’ strengths, and spins a self-contained, tightly scripted stream of flames that turns his troubles into triumph and incinerates anyone wanting beef (“Lookin’ from the surface it may seem like I got reason to be nervous/Then observe my work and see that the adversity was worth it/Verse is autobiographical/Absolutely classical/Last thing I’m worried ’bout is what another rapper do”) and climaxes brilliantly with “Living revolutionary/Nothing less than legendary/Gangster shit hereditary/Got it from my dad/Flow colder than February/With extraordinary swag.”
It’s a great song to get hyped to (if football players across America aren’t blasting this before and after games, I’ll eat a copy of 50 Cent’s latest album) and accessibly poppy, but I just love bobbing my head and smirking along with it. And, of course, it’s meta to death, coming from “Paper Planes” and inspiring Puff as it did.
But the best part about “S.L.U.”? There’s going to be a Part 2.
The 1520 Power Rankings
5. Lil Wayne
3. Charles Hamilton
1. Kanye West
You May Have Missed The Best Show of the Summer
Burn Notice is one of the best shows on television. I can’t compare it to something like Friday Night Lights or Mad Men or The Office or Weeds or what have you, partly because it’s not competing with any of those things, and partly because it’s nothing more than a souped-up “Miami Vice.”
But, oh, what an update it is: Jeffrey Donovan’s Michael Westen is as cool as Crockett and Tubbs together, an Everyman spy who’s been burned by the government and is slowly unraveling just how and by whom; the cast of characters includes the always-smirking Gabrielle Anwar as a shoot-first femme fatale, Bruce Campbell as the brilliantly named Sam Axe’s, Michael’s grizzled lounge lizard of a partner, and the sinister Carla, played with villainous relish by Tricia Helfer, who’s had Michael on strings of late.
It plays out like a procedural working toward a goal, with all sorts of great little winks and nods to its predecessors in the spy genre, luxuriating in Miami’s color and letting its story unfold bit by bit. Donovan gives a bravura performance every episode, going from his neutral tight-jawed tough guy to whatever persona a mission requires, whether geek or cutthroat hitman, with no slack; he’s just as good with the on-off relationship he shares with Anwar’s character and Michael’s mom, done by the magisterial Sharon Gless; and, in maybe the series’ best touch, he narrates much of the action with the sort of knowing, smirking tone you would expect a seasoned agent to use, explaining why a certain angle is taken or how a detail is important. It’s not a how-to for spies, but that’s a hell of a hook, and it’s just one of the many little things that make the show addictive and endlessly watchable.
“Burn Notice” is on hiatus until January or so, but you can catch all the episodes from its first and second seasons on Hulu; I suggest you do.
My Summer Movie Power Rankings
This is based on movies I saw. Apologies to “The Love Guru.” (Well, and “Iron Man.”)
5. “Pineapple Express”
It’s for stoners. And it’s patently ludicrous in its third act. But that’s okay, when you’re laughing at all the slightly addled mannerisms James Franco and Seth Rogen nail perfectly, and the way the warmly witty script for the bromance keeps at least the person-to-person interactions fairly realistic.
4. “Tropic Thunder”
I happen to think this is the best big-name comedy I’ve seen since “Talladega Nights” (and while I really enjoyed “Juno,” it doesn’t count here), and it’s got less to do with Ben Stiller and Jack Black than Robert Downey Jr., Jay Baruchel, and Brandon T. Jackson, who is probably the revelation of the summer for me. It’s well-written, well-acted, somehow makes Tom Cruise even more loathsome, and funny from beginning to end; as summer comedies go, it’s basically perfect.
There’s not a whit of realism here from the word go. And Timur Bekmambetov stretches everything he can because of it, from stupendous sniper shots to thrilling, acrobatic chases in cars, from Angelina Jolie as the mistress of badass to Morgan Freeman as the leader of a cohort of assassins. Don’t ask me to make any sense of the cockamamie plot or defend any of the standard action-movie conceits; at the same time, you won’t get me to say that wasn’t the adrenaline rush of the year.
1. “The Dark Knight”
I had a discussion in my circle of friends about whether “WALL-E” or “The Dark Knight” is the better movie. I came down for the latter, but I can see where the plaudits for the first are deserved.
“WALL-E” does a lot with very little; it’s part silent movie and homage to Chaplin, part kiddie action thriller, part polemic about capitalism, environmentalism, and automation, part whiz-bang demonstration of what Pixar’s tech departments can do (especially Ben Burtt), and part touching love story. It’s great storytelling in that you know where it’s going and have a basic outline of why, but the other questions get answered in ways that make sense and make you smile. It’s sweet, traditional, and modern at the same time, but it hews a little too safe for me.
What Christopher Nolan is doing with the Batman franchise and what Heath Ledger did in creating one of the best villains in movie history is more up my alley. Nolan’s refused to let the grit and grime inherent in Batman’s world wash off, as glitzy, shimmering adaptations past have; he’s made Batman a realistic hero with realistic problems, a guy in a suit with a motive and a bunch of toys rather than a reason for George Clooney to wear something tight-fitting and have false nipples.
And the world around him is similarly, eerily real; Ledger’s Joker is a domestic terrorist, and a smart one, not far removed from our concepts of other real-world wraiths; Aaron Eckhart’s character is complicated, conflicted; Commissioner Gordon and Rachel Dawes each have arcs and obstacles and raisons d’être; heck, so do Alfred and Lucius. Gotham is a thinly veiled Chicago; the reason Batman is brought to China involves something that’s somewhat plausible.
It’s well-paced, wonderfully-shot, carefully-scripted: this is an absorbing movie, one than runs near three hours and could have been enrapturing for three and a half.
But the draw, of course, is Ledger. He’s a scuffed and sullied ne’er-do-well who’s playing games with Gotham, with Batman, with humanity; he’s insatiably curious and frighteningly eccentric, the antihero in the tale who makes the compelling hero look like cardboard by comparison. Ledger was an incandescantly talented actor, but he’s going to be remembered for a bravura performance in an iconic role, for carrying one of the biggest movies of all time with brio and creativity.
He makes “The Dark Knight” one of a handful of truly great summer movies, and he makes it an unlikely and deserving Oscar candidate.
And he wraps up this Quarter Pole. Feel free to leave comments, compliments or brickbats.