OutKast, "Hey Ya," Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Where else could we begin? It's the song of the year--perfect for a drive on a blue-sky day: music at full tilt, voice floating out the open window and straining for harmony, fingers slapping the steering wheel in time, feet stomping the floorboards. All right, all right, all right. Could it get better than this? And could that be a cop stopping me for speeding? I'm guilty, officer. Guilty of funk in the first degree.
The Shins, "Young Pilgrims," Chutes Too Narrow
Choosing one single off this shimmering pop album is like friggin' Sophie's choice. Though opener "Kissing the Lipless" is the band's catchiest song, with that thrilling crescendo of a chorus, I kept returning to this fourth track, with its twangy guitar and deceptively simple lyrics: "I sink and then I swim all night." A band for those of us who think pop music isn't an oxymoron. Of course, there's also...
Fountains of Wayne, "Hackensack," Welcome Interstate Managers
Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood are snarksters who make fun of everything to disguise how blasted heartbroken they are. Though the pop radio hit "Stacy's Mom" finds the pair at their sneering best, songs like "Hackensack"--about a New Jersey burnout dreaming about the girl who made it big--show they can also master the simple and straightforward. Leaving, longing, pointless waiting. All that, and tight harmonies, too.
The Decemberists, "Song for Myla Goldberg," Her Majesty the Decemberists
Colin Meloy's swashbuckling songs manage to be both theatrical and literary, each an odd, nuanced tale of gypsies and other ne'er-do-wells--actors and pirates, soldiers and chimney sweeps, and the stick-limbed, bookish heroine of this song, who Google tells us is the author of the 1997 book Bee Season. All I know is that I'm weak-kneed for any song that can hook me while conjugating Latin verbs: "Finiculi, finicula, finicule, finicula." Omni together now!
The White Stripes, "Seven Nation Army," Elephant
Jack White's little guitar ballads ("You've Got Her in Your Pocket") are as dear as grade-school valentines, but it's this booming, badass opener that I want playing in my own personal Scorsese movie. You know the scene: drums pounding as I wail on some dude, blood spattered against my snarling face, sending his broken nose straight to the back of his skull. It's all metaphor, of course; unlike some people, I'm strictly anti-violence. (Use your words, Jack. Use your words.)
Guster, "Amsterdam," Keep It Together
Boston touring phenomenon turned MTV2 favorite Guster has penned my favorite hipster kiss-off of the year: "I am finally ready to dispose/Of all your vintage clothes." Is it about a wayward love? A deadbeat roommate? "I'm going through your things/I'm changing all my strings." Either way, with addictive music like this, you just want to heap on the heartache.
Okkervil River, "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," Down the River of Golden Dreams
I appreciate ambition. I appreciate a songwriter who will take his little ditty and push it to the absolute stretching point. Toss in some strings, chase it with horns. Holding all this together is singer Will Sheff, never content to sing a note when he could throttle it, conveying a story that may be about a murderous lieutenant or may be an indictment of convenience culture. This Austin band occasionally veers into pretentiousness, but goddamn, they aim for the heart.
The Strokes, "Between Love and Hate," Room on Fire
The rest of this album made me want to dust off Is This It. Now that was a great album, and it didn't cost me an extra $16.99. But six songs in to Room on Fire, this shameless, no-brainer of a chorus ("I never needed anybody/I never needed nooo-body") made me want to start a bonfire in someone's back yard and pop the top on a few Pearl Lights. Coolest band in the land? Doubtful. Music to make out to? You betcha.
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Travis, "Peace the F**k Out," 12 Memories
In a year of carnage and confusion, those lachrymose Scottish lads offer a worthy imperative for the new year: "The time has come to peace the fuck out."
Hidden track: Elliott Smith, "Independence Day," XO
"Everybody knows you only live a day/But it's brilliant anyway."