Drinkin' Hand Grenades
2005 YEAR-END BALLOT1. "Outta Control," 50 Cent featuring Mobb Deep: In my comment on “99 Problems” last year, I did something I try to avoid: I started generalizing about the state of music, specifically the kind of hip-hop that knows of no world beyond some ubiquitous club that may or may not be fictitious, but which is of minimal relevance to the life of a white middle-aged grade-school teacher in any case. Even as I wrote, though, there was a part of me that thought about tacking on a disclaimer at the end based on a lifetime of lis- tening to the radio and being surprised: “My favourite record of next year could very well be set in that same club, which is why it’s stupid to start generalizing about the state of music.” What I get from “Outta Control” is the same thing I once got from Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray”: a pause, a celebration, a record so beautiful in all that happens between the words that I’m tempted to call it something lofty like a meditation on the club, even though those words primarily consist of the usual stuff about getting your drink on and swallowing (um, not the drink) and gunning you all up. (Also, if I call it a meditation on the club, that would make it a club meditation, which sounds too much like Club Med.) A week after a 15-year-old shopper was randomly shot and killed on Boxing Day outside the same Toronto record store I used to rush down to on Boxing Day when I was 15, the gunning-you-up line suddenly seems real in a way I wouldn’t have expected it to; fantasyland or not--and I usually don’t have any difficulty separating the music I love from its real-life implications--I wouldn’t want to have to explain to that girl’s family why this is my record of the year and that not to worry, it’s all showmanship. In a way, 50 Cent takes care of that himself in my single favour- ite moment of 2005, when the piano comes in for the first time on the line “Trust me, man, it’s okay.” Again, I’d have a hard time explaining why, but those two or three seconds seem incomparably wise and serene to me. 2. "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," Legendary K.O., and 4. "Gold Digger," Kanye West: The timing of the Kanye West single--if I remember correctly, it was start- ing to get a lot of play in the couple of weeks leading up to Katrina--had to have been the most politically serendipitous since the release of The China Syndrome right before Three Mile Island 25 years ago. I specifically mean West’s chorus, which was just wait- ing there for anyone who wanted to do something with it after Katrina (hinging on a word I’m always reluctant to quote), and also, of course, his televised condemnation of Bush in the immediate aftermath. I only caught it on replay, but it was something to see how nervous and agitated West was as he forced himself to say what he wanted to say; it felt like the only such instance since Sinead O’Connor’s SNL debacle where a pop star had actually departed from the script for a vertiginous leap into no-man’s land. (If nothing else, I hope we’re at least in agreeance that West’s ambush was more surprising than Fred Durst’s war-is-bad bombshell a few years ago.) Legendary K.O. takes the template of a great record and some controversy and fills in all the details, with his first order of business (title notwithstanding) to change West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” to “George Bush don’t like black people,” a much harsher indictment that happens to scan much better in a song. Funniest line easy is “Five long days, five long days, and at the end of the fifth, you’re walkin’ in like ‘Heyyyyyyyy,’” and “He would have been up in Connecticut twice as fast” is pretty great too. I don’t know if we’ll ever hear from Legendary K.O. again or not. Senator Bobby had a cover of “Mellow Yel- low” out within two months of “Wild Thing” in 1967, but the moment has already passed for a “Brownie, You’re Doin’ a Heckuva Job” follow-up. 3. "1 Thing," Amerie: Dense, urgent, cataclysmic: there’s so much going on, I still don’t know what the one thing is that’s got Amerie trippin’ (if it’s even verbalized at all; I don’t think it ever is), nor have I been able to figure out why she’s moved to blurt out “gobble-gobble-gobble” every so often. Soon after this came out I played it on the radio show I’ve been doing the past year, and it felt as thrilling in that context as when I did the same with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on my old show in 1988. 5. "Girl," Beck: “My sun-eyed girl”? Until I double-checked a lyrics site a minute ago, I thought it was “My southern girl,” and that the title had been shortened to “Girl” out of deference to Cheap Trick. Apparently not--Beck was just keeping one of his old- fashioned clunky lyrics hidden from view. The song is no less nimble or appealing be- cause of it, just as “Pay No Mind” was evocative enough to exist apart from its awful lines about manure and overflowing toilets. Once again, I’m happy that Cheap Trick was Cheap Trick. “Sun-eyed girls, you got nothin’ to lose” doesn’t work so well. 6. "Since K Got Over Me," Clientele: The Crystals are plain as day, as they were in “Love Will Tear Us Apart”’s fadeout 25 years ago, and I think I also hear a bit of “Waterloo Sunset.” That’s the kind of referencing that asks for, and possibly deserves, a response of “big deal,” but these little reminders of the past--#5 and #10 are stuck there too--are about the only thing I’m getting from (for lack of a better word) rock music at the moment. The Decembrists and the Hold Steady and the Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand are more forward-looking, I guess, and, based on the singles and albums I’ve heard from each, I kind of hate them all. (Or maybe they’re not, maybe their referencing just isn’t in sync with my interests.) Not that I’m generalizing about the state of music, because that’s a stupid thing to do. 7. "Ring Ding Ding (Frog)," L.O.C.: I’ve never heard “Crazy Frog,” and I’m not really even clear on what the whole ringtones phenomenon is all about; I heard L.O.C.’s answer song for the first time a week ago, when six of my students played it four or five times at our class Christmas party. Tajah told me it was the Ying Yang twins, I guess because “Ying Yang” sounds a little bit like “Ring Ding”; it it’d been 1970 she would have told me the Bells, 1985 and she’d have said the Alarm. Took me a couple of days to sort all that out, but I eventually tracked the song down and also got filled in on the “Crazy Frog” backstory. There’s stupid, and then there’s Super-Stupid, and L.O.C. are a super- sized hunk of Super-Stupid. The shelf life of such inanities is precarious; my guess is that I’ll be sick of this one by last week. 8. "Pimpin' All Over the World," Ludacris: Travelogue pop in the tradition of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and the B-52’s “Roam”--not as good, but good enough. The big attraction for me, of course, is the pitstop in Toronto, alerting the rest of the world to something I’ve been telling everyone for years: the pimpin’ here is top-notch, absolutely first-rate. 9. "Hung Up," Madonna: A lazy vote, I know--however high it finishes will be too high. When Madonna turned wistful and elegiac 15 years ago, she’d do a ballad and generally do a really good job of it; she’s far enough along now that anachronistic mid-tempo disco achieves more or less the same effect, and if I were as sensitive to her virtues as I think I am to the Pet Shop Boys’, I’d probably find this as moving as “The Samurai in Autumn” or “Flamboyant.” I’m not, but as Nixon used to say that Teddy Roosevelt used to say, she’s still in the arena. 10. "Fall to Pieces," Velvet Revolver: Speaking of anachronistic, this goes back to 2004, but it didn’t find me until the middle of last year, when I was wandering in a reverie one afternoon inside Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. I was over in the Wishbone Ash/“More Than a Feeling” wing, and it just kind of materialized out of the ether. One last thought having to do with the radio show I mentioned earlier. College radio hasn’t changed a bit in 15 years. I used to get grief then for mixing in Janet Jackson or Vanessa Williams--not a great deal, I did an overnight and was pretty much left alone, but the guy who did the show in front of me, for one, would have been happy to see me run over by a transport. I’m a lot more circumspect now about sneaking in some- thing hugely popular (a change that’s paralleled my own listening habits, so it’s been an easy adjustment), but sure enough, when I played Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” a couple of weeks ago, the metal girl before me called me on it; she wasn’t overly confrontational or anything, but she did want me to justify why I was playing commercial hip-hop. “Be- cause it’s a great song?” wasn’t good enough, so I pointed out that I’d heard New Kids on the Block played on the Saturday afternoon dance show a couple of months ago (true), and that the station’s hip-hop shows played the likes of 50 Cent all the time (I made that one up). Playing New Kids on the Block is acceptable, it turns out: “But that’s retro.” Oh. I can’t think of word, or a concept, that creeps me out more than “retro.” I’m guessing that virtually anyone who writes about music feels the same. Whatever I love at any given moment always exists in the here and now, whether it came out last week, 10 years ago, or in 1963. “Outta Control”’s main competitors for my favourite song of the year were the Spikedriver’s “Often I Wonder,” the Cellos’ “Rang Dang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman),” Hot Tuna’s “Sea Child,” Yo La Tengo’s “Satellite,” and a dozen other going, gone, or long-gone things that felt every bit as wondrous as 50 Cent’s record. (That his gave up nothing to any of them is why he’s #1.) Really, it’s a completely meaningless distinction to me.