The Best Bits
2016 YEAR-END BALLOT1. “Dropping Houses,” Wussy: Forever Sounds is the first LP of theirs where I don’t like at least half of it. Really, not much of anything catches my ear after “Dropping Houses,” although “She’s Killed Hundreds” does have a memorable lyric hooked around the title. I didn’t think I’d like “Dropping Houses” either the first time I played it. Clearly it belonged to their “heavy” side, quotation marks pejoratively intended; Chuck Cleaver puts one or two songs on every album like that, and they’re always dead weight. But then it gets going, and it’s not that--it’s one of their dreamy, chaotic, end-of-the-world songs, “Little Miami” and “Pizza King” and “Home,” and whenever they’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter time too, they’re as good as anyone ever. I had a file folder of Obama songs in 2008, most of them passed along by a friend. Con- ceding that I never pay close attention to new music until late in the year, there didn’t seem to be much out there that directly addressed the nine-ton elephant in the room. The two songs I heard that tried to--a Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People” and the fuck- Donald-Trump one--both seemed clunky and forced to me. Strange, because moving beyond music there are people out there who are hell-bent on connecting Trump to everything. So let me add to that lunacy and say that “Dropping Houses” makes for a much better, much more evocative Trump song than either one of those two. (I have no idea what it’s actually about.) I’d even suggest that Wussy have been waiting for Trump since “Air- borne,” their first song on their first album 11 years ago. 2. “All Night,” Chance the Rapper: Very much in the tradition of Tony! Toni! Toné! Loc’s “Let’s Get Down” and Vic Mensa’s “Down on My Luck,” my two favorite drinking songs ever (which amount to memory songs for me--i.e., I don’t anymore). They’re about world-class drinkers, this one’s about a guy who should never drink, but the mood’s just the same in the end. What it needs is a video as great as those two to go along with it. 3. “Emotional High,” Mannequin Pussy: The last sound I’ll hear before I die--female voice struggling to be heard above the (melodic--has to be melodic) din, losing at first, getting there eventually, Grace Slick, Courtney Love, etc. 4. “Am I Wrong,” Anderson .Paak: Not sure if the first two words are “My life,” “Why lie?” or “White light.” I could check that in three seconds, but--my most frequently quoted movie line of the past few years--let’s just not know. Very suave, gives me an excuse not to vote for that Bruno Mars song that sounds pretty good, which would feel to me like voting for Sha Na Na, and I’d rather not do that. 5. “Old Friends,” Pinegrove: I thought a Google search of “pinegrove neil young” would return a few thousand results, but I get almost nothing. I guess it’s such an obvious comparison--musically more than vocally--you’ve got to be as lazy as I am to go ahead and make it. 6. “Black Beatles,” Rae Sremmurd: I called over a former student of mine a few weeks ago--I taught her in grade 6; she’s in 8 now--and said “Tell me about ‘Black Beatles.’” Basically I just wanted to say, “See how they mention John Lennon and Paul McCartney? Aren’t you glad I used to talk about that stuff all the time?” I could go on for sev- eral pages about my weaknesses and blind spots as a teacher, but, two years away from retirement, the one thing I know I did really well was get kids interested in what interests me. The Beatles were fairly easy; I could also do it with Richard Nixon’s farewell address to his staff, or the coffee cup from Two or Three Things I Know About Her. (Which is not to say everyone was interested...narrow but deep, let’s say, and this particular girl was someone I got through to.) I remember a few years ago, at a grade-level meeting, I suggested we do a reading about Gordon Lightfoot and another teacher said no, it should be something directly related to the kids’ lives, cell phones and video games and such. That’s a viewpoint I always fundamentally disagreed with; the much more rewarding approach is to take something the kids don’t think they’re interested in and make them understand why they are. It’s like Kyle Chandler on Friday Night Lights the couple of times students told him they didn’t like football: “Yes you do--you just don’t know it yet.” 7. “30 Keys,” Ka; 8. “Lockjaw,” French Montana; and 9. “Wicked,” Future: The only one of these that’s explicitly about drugs sounds less druggy than the two that are the kind of slurred, zonked-out hip-hop that invariably sounds druggy by default. I always vote for this stuff. Part of my job is warning kids about substance abuse, but in some past life I’m convinced I must have been a drug dealer. 10. “Work from Home,” Fifth Harmony/“Work,” Rihanna: Obvious pairing for the final spot, even though I only had room enough on the Voice’s form ballot to vote for Fifth Harmony. Not sure if Rihanna has the most-ever hits for a female singer now. If it’s her, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears clustered at the top, I’ll take Rihanna and Madonna and pass on the other three. Update: I listen to so little new music these days, and it takes me so long to catch up with a year, that I'll limit myself to one postscript. Heard two songs this week I would have included in the above list: a Tribe Called Quest's "Black Spasmodic" and the Pet Shop Boys' "The Pop Kids." Found the Tribe Called Quest CD cheap on Boxing Day, and though I don't like very much of it, "Black Spasmodic" captures what I love about "Bonita Applebum" much more than "We the People." "The Pop Kids" is such a perfect distillation of the Pet Shop Boys, it's almost as if they set out to parody themselves: "We were young but imag- ined we were so sophisticated/Telling everyone we knew that rock was overrated." Either way, a perfect distillation of the Pet Shop Boys is going to sound great by default. I found a list--video clip, actually--of the female artists with the most Top 40 hits. (That's the metric I'd use; #1 hits gives too much of an advantage to current artists, Top 100 hits probably gives too much of an advantage to '50s and '60s singers like Bren- da Lee.) The top 11, as of last summer: 1. Madonna and Taylor Swift (50), 3. Rihanna (47), 4. Aretha Franklin (43), 5. Diana Ross (38), 6. Janet Jackson (36), 7. Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Nicki Minaj, and Connie Francis (35), 11. Beyoncé (34). (Britney Spears has 26, a few spots lower.) Not sure if that includes the Supremes and Destiny's Child or not. So the top 3 are Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Rihanna. Even more emphatically than above: I'll take Rihanna and Madonna and launch Taylor Swift airborne, never to return.