Who Knew


I’m Not Dead (2006)

Pink is one of those artists who is so reliably consistent that it’s hard to single out any one song as a particular highlight – they’re honestly all really good. Momentarily ignoring the label puppetry of her hip-hop-inflected debut (remember when people weren’t sure if Pink was white or just a light-skinned black girl?), I’d say she’s yet to have a misfire. “Who Knew” is probably the best of her releases, channeling her feisty girl-power rage into heartbreak. Not many people would react to a doubting friend by wanting to punch them in the face, but Pink certainly seems like the type who would. She also manages to expertly walk a careful lyrical line, providing enough specifity to hook the listener while leaving enough ambiguity to let anyone relate to this tale of loss (is it about death? a break-up? divorce?). I’m also grateful her label decided to re-release this song, which initially flopped, after the surprise success of “U + Ur Hand,” turning “Who Knew” into another top ten smash.

Also check out: Ida Maria’s “Oh My God” — a catchy shoulda-been-hit from a similarly scratchy-throated pop/rock singer.


The Girl and the Robot

Royksopp featuring Robyn

Junior (2009)

When I first heard this song, I thought it was a pretty solid electro pop song with a killer bassline. But that was about it. Then one line — and only that one line — kept coming back in my head: “I’m in love with a robot.” And I kept listening to the song. Over and over again. And it got better every time I heard it, until I realized that the whole track just nails it. Most pop songs basically hold your hand through the verses trying to get you to the chorus, and then repeat the chorus as often as possible. As with Robyn’s other entry on the countdown, this song has an odd structure that sidesteps that route. It ends up being that slight structural twist that, in a way, becomes the hook. Meanwhile, Royksopp have never been better — I hope they keep churning out material like “The Girl and the Robot.” Their last two albums have been masterpieces, and they deserve being one of only a handful of artists to grace this top 50 more than once.

Also check out: “Song 4 Mutya” by Groove Armada featuring Mutya Buena (also released as “Out of Control”)


If I Ain’t Got You

Alicia Keys

The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003)

With her sophomore effort, Alicia Keys proved that the hints of brilliance on “Songs in A Minor” were no fluke. “The Diary of Alicia Keys” is her best album, with a number of great songs, topped by the soulful joy of “If I Ain’t Got You.” It’s a love song in many senses — not just love for her man, but love for musicianship. I am a fan of electronic music, but I still find it important to step back from time to time and listen to music that eschews technological assistance in favor of raw musical skill. Keys has got the goods.

Also check out: “Flow” by Sade


Say It Right

Nelly Furtado

Loose (2006)

I don’t think anybody saw Nelly Furtado’s left turn into hip-hop coming, but after the shock of seeing her rap alongside Timbaland subsided, it turned out she was pretty damn good at working in the genre. “Promiscuous” and “Maneater” were both great singles in their own right, but it was “Say It Right” that found the perfect balance of her introspective lyricism and Timbaland’s addictive mid-tempo beats. Furtado sounds like she has had some sort of sorrowful epiphany, tinged with only the smallest sliver of hope, giving the song a quietly epic feel.

Also check out: I normally am not that impressed by mash-ups, but there is a version of “Say it Right” that uses the music of Robert Miles’s “Children” that is definitely worth finding.


Cry Me A River

Justin Timberlake

Justified (2002)

Teen pop is littered with the corpses of failed solo careers — how many other young singers have successfully emerged from boy-bands? Michael Jackson? Ricky Martin, sort of? Justin Timberlake was no sure thing, but “Justified” brought him into his own, and set the stage for a surprisingly successful decade. He’s only released two solo albums, but a slew of guest performances for everyone from Madonna to T.I. to the Black Eyed Peas has more than proven his skill. “Cry Me A River” is a fine Timbaland production, meshing Timberlake’s falsetto with a chunky mid-tempo beat and a backing instrumental that even includes nonsense mumbling as a musical element. Add in a video referencing Timberlake’s notorious breakup with Britney Spears, and you have a pop culture touchstone.

Also check out: “Shake It” by JC Chasez – NSync’s second-most talented member’s funky collaboration with Basement Jaxx



Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Fever to Tell (2003)

“Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” This line is repeated over and over again in “Maps,” and it’s heartbreaking every time. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have become a surprisingly enduring rock band that’s willing to taste samples of a bunch of genres while never compromising their sound (the electro-inflected “It’s Blitz!” is a great album). “Maps” was the song that, uh, put them on the map, so to speak, and it feels like the aural equivalent of a raw, exposed nerve. It hurts, but in a cathartic way.

Also check out: “Publisher” by Blonde Redhead – from one of the best albums of the decade, “23.”


The Way I Are

Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson

Shock Value (2007)

Bizarre grammar aside (actually, I typically sing the chorus as “the way I is,” because — why not?), this is easily Timbaland’s finest moment as a solo artist. Hip-hop is already pretty danceable in general, but upping the tempo and merging it with a more typical dance sound while still feeling fully grounded in its root genre is a difficult task. Although a tad on the short side (the song really feels like it needs one more chorus to close it out), this song is just plain excellent pop music. And kudos to introducing us to Keri Hilson, who has since released a few more great songs of her own (my favorite being “Turnin’ Me On”).

Also check out: “4 My People,” a similar take on hip-hop/dance from Missy Elliot and Eve


Ring the Alarm


B’Day (2006)

It happened gradually enough that it never really caught anyone off-guard, but Beyonce went from a fairly tame R&B singer to a flat-out crazy bitch over the past ten years. Her early work with Destiny’s Child was decent but by no means did she stand out as the future pop superstar it now seems like she was (ahem) destined to become. Seriously, take a look at the cover of their album “The Writing’s on the Wall” — can you even identify which one is Beyonce at first glance? Every time I see that image I have to pick her out by process of elimination. In any case, her solo debut introduced us to some pretty nutty dance moves, but it wasn’t until “Ring the Alarm” from her second album that Beyonce really let her freak flag fly. This surprising choice for a single (her first solo effort to miss the top ten, albeit barely at #11)  featured instrumentation that practically clangs, a chorus that is more like screaming than singing, and a music video where she is flailing against security guards and dancing like she’s epileptic. And damned if I don’t want to clip on a fake ponytail and fling my head around along with her every time I hear this song. Girlfriend is ANGRY and I love it. I hesitate to ever heap unqualified accolades on an artist, but Beyonce is so much the real deal in pretty much every possible aspect (and damn it, she even seems like she’s a nice person), that she is worth every ounce of the praise she gets.

Also check out: Amerie’s “1 Thing,” another frantic hip-hop confection.



The Notwist

Neon Golden (2002)

I don’t remember who shared this song with me, but I’d like to thank them now. The Notwist are a band of economy, stripping their songs of anything unnecessary and leaving just the raw, bare bones. Two nearly identical verses split the singer and his love into two distinct entities (“I’m not in this movie / I’m not in this song”), sung with the dispassionate resignation of someone who has gone through a painful love and come out exhausted. I envision the world’s rotation slowing when the song’s coda kicks in at the 3:30 mark. If you’ve never heard of The Notwist, do check this album out. It’s a great find.

Also check out: Erlend Oye’s “Ghost Trains,” a more electronic example of a singer’s emotional flatness somehow making a song convey more feeling than it would have otherwise.


Grand Canyon

Tracey Thorn

Out of the Woods (2007)

You don’t know how sad I am that Everything But the Girl hasn’t released any new material since 1999. They are probably my favorite group, and “Walking Wounded” has for some time stood as my favorite album ever. So it was incredibly exciting to finally get Tracey Thorn’s solo album, as her voice is perhaps the most lovely thing I’ve ever heard. “Out of the Woods” turned out a bit spottier than I would’ve liked (Ben Watt is clearly as key to the magic of EBTG as Tracey is), but among the handful of truly great songs, “Grand Canyon” stood out above the rest. As I looked online to find the full quote of my favorite lyric, I realized the whole song is a string of beautiful lines. “Down among the heretics, the losers, and the saints / You are here amongst your own / You’ve come home.” It’s a welcoming of unconditional love set to a disco beat, a misfit call to the dancefloor.

Also check out: “Hello There” by collaborator Cagedbaby (in fact, check out pretty much anything by Cagedbaby, it’s all good)