Surveying singles,whatever they are
The type of music capable of being evoked by the term “No Depression” has been in a more or less constant state of expansion since this magazine’s beginnings. The process began in 1995, of course, with the magazine’s titular appropriation of a 1990 punk rock album by the band Uncle Tupelo. From that starting point, the magazine eventually began to take in all sorts of older country music as well and logically so, as Tupelo had found its “No Depression” in the Carter Family catalogue. It was then a fairly straight path, though one trailed at first only in fits and starts, to bluegrass and the blues, to soul music and rock ‘n’ roll, to gospel and folk and so on to where we find ourselves online today, claiming pretty much anything that might somehow be considered American roots music, whatever that is.
This progression was, to a great extent, simply an organic expression of what the magazine’s editors and writers were interested in at any given moment, but it also made real commercial sense: After all, give or take a few die-hards, most people enjoy all sorts of music, and I daresay that today’s typical ND reader is a fan not only of “No Depression” music, however generously defined, but of an even larger category that each of us might as well just call Music I Like. That is, though we may well prefer some genres to others, we don’t limit our pleasure to predetermined musical categories, not even to a category as endlessly satisfying as American roots music. We like what we like.
I bring all this up because it is, at this end-of-December time, on my ND mind once again. For all sorts of reasonable, practical, useful reasons, we limit our best-of-the-year picks here to American roots music. Still, even that big tent inevitably leaves most of what I’ve enjoyed over any given year out in the cold. This is especially true for me, and perhaps for you as well, because so much of the recorded new music I enjoy are tracks that are conceived to stand alone as singles, and marketed that way to mainstream radio two musical media all but overlooked in our format-less and, therefore, necessarily album-focused world of No Depression.
So for this end-of-the-year column, please indulge me an annual quick tip of the hat to greater musical eclecticism. The following, in no particular order, were among my favorite pop singles of 2008.
“I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You” by Black Kids. The reason behind that declaration mainly comes down to romantic advantage: “The second I do, I know we’re gonna be through.” But there’s also the simple matter of pride the boyfriend in need of instruction “bites my moves.” I’m not sure which I love more: the funny dance remix by the Twelves, which is built around a marvelously old-school Prince synthesizer riff and sounds much more likely to move the crowd in a club, or the also-funny album version that has rock guitars and a string section to make the heart swell. Thank goodness for the 12-inch single, which includes both.
(Yet another version of the Black Kids smash, by Kate Nash.)
“Good, Good” by Ashanti, in which the so-called princess of hip-hop and R&B insists that she doesn’t fear her man will cheat on her. Why? Because she’s got “that good, good…” Well, let’s just say she thinks she’s pretty good in bed. “I put it on him right, I do it every night,” she brags with a purr. “I leave him sitting mouth-open like.” The record sounds just that confident and irresistible, too, riding over an appropriately pulse-racing high-hat bounce and a sampled piano crash from “Bennie And The Jets”. Granted, hot sex is a notoriously unreliable way to insure fidelity in a partner, but that particular adult lesson is, as they say, another song.
“White Horse” by Taylor Swift shows the country pop youngster beginning to learn some grown-up lessons of her own about the heartbreaking reality of love here in the real world as opposed to the fantasy one she has thus far been most inclined to sing about. Then again, Taylor Swift is a teenager. But what’s the excuse for so much of the rest of country radio?
“Troublemaker” by Weezer includes my favorite lyrical/musical joke of year. In the second verse of this mockery of celebrity self-absorption, the would-be rebel of the title announces, oh so rebelliously, to his parents: “You wanted arts and crafts? How’s this for arts and crafts?” He answers the question with a silly and snotty sneer, delivered on guitar: “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nuh-nah!” And it rocks like I wish that new AC/DC album did.
“Another Way to Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys is the best R&B/rock collaboration since Eddie Van Halen joined Michael Jackson on “Beat It” (or at least since Foo Fighters backed Puff Daddy on “All About The Benjamins”), and perhaps the unlikeliest ever. The resulting sounds are closer to indie-rock than R&B, but the quality of that result is much closer to Keys’ high standard than to White’s. Primarily this is because working with the pop-oriented Keys provides White a much more subtle sense of groove (no offense to Meg White) and drama than he’s previously known. I’m not entirely sure what the narrative thrust of the song is about just that it’s meant to be James Bond suspenseful and I doubt they do either. But no matter, the record fulfills job one: It makes me want to turn it up.
“Last Call” by Lee Ann Womack is that rarity these days a country song about such traditionally country subjects as drinking and cheating, and their consequences in heartache. It is perhaps telling of just where we are in mainstream country today that it is, as well, a country song about traditional country songs. In effect, it anticipates a last call for the type: “Call me crazy,” the best country singer of her generation moans during a bridge that is as pure pop as the piano and pedal steel in the verses are pure country, “but I think maybe we’ve had our last call.” Well, not if Womack has anything to say about it.