We're Just Trying to Be Friendly
2001 YEAR-END BALLOT1. "Around the World," ATC: This stood in stark relief to everything else on pop radio in 2001. Destiny's Child, Alicia Keyes, Jay-Z, all that inter- changeably dismal Staind/Creed/Incubus piffle--everyone's a showstopper, dramatizing and declaiming over every square inch of song, self-appointed legends the moment they get a record on the air. (No less true of at least a couple of the people below, but I found myself fleeing from a greater per- centage of radio swagger this year than at any time in recent memory.) "Around the World" was the only music to satisfy my new rule that the best song in any given year must be touched by the hand of "You Showed Me" by the Byrds: mysterious, luminous, melancholy, evanescent, serene. ATC's singer spends much of the time explaining her inability to explain anything ("I don't know what to say--oh not another word, just *la-la-la-la-la*..."), but precipitating her speechlessness is one of the greatest subjects of all for pop music, a disruptive but liberating encounter with "the radio playing songs that I have never heard." In the first verse she hears them, in the second she sits in an empty room waiting to hear them again. No matter how cataclysmic the effect, there's never explicit verbalization of what is better left to the *la-la-la-la-la*s and their matching Europop synthesizer flourish. Even the big Martha Wash/Robin S voice that pops up at the end, which 10 years ago would have been front and center, is mixed way into the background. A deceptively complicated record that is as pure in its way as the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" or the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." 2. "Get Ur Freak On (Nelly Furtado Remix)," Missy Elliot: In another year, in a different frame of mind, this would have topped my list. The regular version is the most bizarre mainstream hip-hop I've heard since Busta Rhymes' "Woo-Hah!", the remix (easily identifiable by the helpful line "Reeeeee- mix!") weirder still. As freak artifacts go, this one conjures up Tod Brown- ing and the Mothers of Invention as much as it does Chic. 3. "Round and Round," Hi-Tek: Good title for an R&B trance-out. The round- and-round at first refers to voices in the singer's head, then settles into a break-up-to-make-up kind of round-and-round. Towards the end there's a dramatic announcement that "Today I made up my mind to get away," but noth- ing's ever resolved and the song trails off still going round and round. Not the Ninja Turtle group from the late '80s, which was Hi Tek 3, unless it's one of those remnants-of-the-Drifters-type touring companies. 4. "Days of the Week," Stone Temple Pilots: It's pretty funny how this group is so entrenched on both "hard" and "modern" rock stations, the two commer- cial radio formats that are the most sanctimonious about their closed-off worlds. If either listenership ever clues into the fact that they're harbor- ing the new Monkees, I'm sure excommunication will follow immediately. For what it's worth, I don't know anyone who operates on the calendar described in "Days of the Week." "Back from the dead" on *Monday*? It's been a long time since these people held real jobs. 5. "Since I Left You," Avalanches: A bookend for Hi-Tek above, insofar as it's exactly the kind of half-remembered reverie I imagine as the inspiration for "Around the World." Like Barbara Mason's "Yes, I'm Ready," which the vocal reminds me of and which always makes me swoon when I hear it today. It takes a lot of technological ingenuity to get such authentically faraway ambience out of some spliced-together samples. I wish it were an actual song, especially one I'd gotten to know off the radio, instead of from a mixed tape made by a friend. I guess those things matter to me, which is partly why I connect with "Around the World" more deeply. 6. "The Plumb Song," Snow: To introduce the concept of probability to grade- school kids, you begin with familiar vocabulary applied to everyday examples: it's unlikely, though far from impossible, that we'll see any snow in April, but it's extremely likely, though not 100% certain, that we'll get some in March. If you'd asked me three years ago about the probability of Snow in 2001, I would have placed the likelihood well towards the low end of the spec- trum. More improbable still, he's added one of those airy, magisterial highway songs to my country's national canon: Gordon Lightfoot's "Carefree Highway," Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Roll on Down the Highway," Tom Cochrane's "Life Is a Highway"...well, maybe it's a two-song canon. "The Plumb Song"'s most bril- liant line comes right at the start, where Snow pays homage to his Hendrix/ Allman/Clapton roots by asking someone to "hand me that guitar." And thus the legend can finally be told: Deep down in Jane and Finch, across from Albion/ Way back up in the woods among the evergreen/There stood a few apartments lined up in a row/Where lived a country boy, went by the name of Snow. Etc., etc. 7. "You," Lucy Pearl: "Nephew Snoop," as he's referred to here (by somebody clearly much younger than he is--confusing), is about thirty times scarier in John Singleton's otherwise clumsy BABY BOY than Ben Kingsley's affected Frank Booth imitation in SEXY BEAST. Kingsley has a big 20-minute buildup and a shaved head, and he more or less nags people into submission (he's more annoy- ing than frightening); Snoop's got the look. On "You" he takes on a much more difficult supporting role as a marriage-minded romantic who advises "time brings change." 8. "Purple Hills," D12: I'm not sure if Eminem's supposed to be an actual walking timebomb, liable to say or do something indefensible at any given moment, or whether he just plays around with that idea in order to ridicule anyone gullible enough to believe it. I'm a year behind, that was 2000's big question--lots of close analysis that tried to figure him out, just like everyone used to try to figure out Axl Rose--and to that end, "Purple Hills" was probably insufficiently self-involved for critics fascinated by all the Slim Shady legerdemain. But I'm convinced that "Purple Hills" has it all over "My Name Is," "The Real Slim Shady," and "Stan" in one department: it's full- bodied and instantaneously catchy, musically alive in a way that Eminem's usual plinking around isn't. Eminem's isn't even the most interesting voice here, which belongs to the Humpty Hump soundalike who turns "sumpin', sumpin', sumpin'" into a perfect vocal ellipsis. As far as Eminem's neuroses go, one of my favourite lines in GHOST WORLD was Thora Birch's explanation of why she chose to do a portrait of Don Knotts for her summer art class: "Because I like Don Knotts." I do too. Now *there* was a guy with "issues." 9. "My Way," Limp Bizkit: The first Fred to make my year-end list since Right Said Fred in 1991. This Fred's a few evolutionary steps backwards in terms of cartoonishness, a leap back to Freds Grandy, Flintstone, and Mertz, but "My Way" always caught my attention, and sometimes even nailed my mood, in what- ever setting I heard it this year. It has an odd minor-key coloration that's almost beautiful in spots, making the standard soft-part-now-here-comes-the- loud-part gimmick seem not so hokey as a result. Another highway song, only here the highway is where you're banished to if you don't accommodate Fred Durst's every last wish. And I'm sure that at this point in his life, Durst is a guy who faces no end of resistance from the people he surrounds himself with on a day-to-day basis. 10. "Family Affair," Mary J. Blige: I have a daily thing in my class where we spend five minutes commemorating the birthday or death day of somebody famous, or the anniversary of a famous event. On Chuck Berry's birthday I always play "Come On," with some or all of the lyrics written on the board, and I talk about how in his other songs he'd sometimes make up funny words like "bothera- tion." This year, that prompted Shauna to point out that Mary J. Blige sang about "hateration" in her new song. Well, she probably had Chuck Berry in the back of her mind when she wrote that, I said, a bit of blufferation on my part--"Family Affair" mentions 8-Tracks, too, so for all I know its rhymes owe more to Chuck Barris. Perhaps we'll revisit Mary J. Blige's influences on March 15, Sly Stone's birthday, and I'll tell the class all about the mud and the blood and the importance of punctuality. I'm casting a bonus vote for my Dad, who recently asked if I was "still writing for the Village People." It was his greatest malapropism since my parents were apartment-hunting a few years ago and he mentioned a place as being "$850, including utensils." I was enjoying the moment too much to really answer him, so yes, Dad, I am, now and again, but I try to save all my best stuff for the Silver Convention.