I did not want to like an Eminem song. I pretty much hated the guy when he first came out. If he wasn’t acting like a fratboy-child, he was acting like a homophobic brute. But then he had to go and record one of the best rap songs ever, and I had to concede that the man may personally be a turn-off but the talent is there. The lyrics do an amazing job of putting you in the scene, right off the bat: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy / There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti / He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready.” Eminem is good at getting into character, it’s just that this is the first time he sings as a character you want to root for.
Also check out: Eminem’s “White America” – perfectly distilling the (irrational) fear so many parents had
Coldplay is one of those groups who follows what I’ll call “the inverse popularity ratio,” where as they have become more and more commercially successful, I have found their music less and less interesting. (Sorry everybody, I don’t get the “Viva La Vida” love.) “Clocks,” from their sophomore album, is probably their most definitively shining musical moment (followed closely by “Trouble”). The song itself is ridiculously simple, composed primarily of a repeated piano arpeggio with a chorus that is mostly just harmonized “ooh”s, but it’s that very simplicity that makes it so compelling.
Also check out: “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, a sort of Coldplay Jr.
It’s easy to forget this now that we are in Madonna’s post-”American Life” career, where in the last 7 years she has managed a whopping TWO top ten singles total, but before that 2003 commercial disaster, Madonna was still tearing up the charts. I am still astounded that “Die Another Day” was a smash hit. Listen to this song. Freaky auto-tuning. Barely a hint of a melody. Chopped-up dramatic orchestral strings. This is not the recipe for a hit. But she put the whole thing together (with the considerable talent of producer Mirwais), dumped the tired old Bond theme template, and dragged us all into the 21st century. This is also probably Madonna’s most bizarre set of lyrics: “I’m gonna wake up yes and no / I’m gonna kiss some part of / I’m gonna keep this secret / I’m gonna close my body now.” A good chunk of the song makes no sense, but the parts that do are all about defiance and self-control. If there is anyone who could actually force death away, it’s Madonna. And when I listen to this song, I kind of feel like I could too.
Also check out: “Easy Ride” from “American Life” — the logical extension of this song, featuring the line “I want to live forever”
Hoo boy. I don’t know how this whole project got its start, but Johnny Cash covering modern rock songs is undeniably brilliant. “Hurt,” in particular, is a perfect choice. The song, originally by Nine Inch Nails, is a slice of pre-emo self-obsession, which, let’s face it, sounds a bit like a 17-year-old’s journal entry (albeit a very GOOD journal entry) in comparison to Cash’s cover. Put this song in the hands of a widow near the twilight of his own life, and lines like “everyone I know goes away in the end” become monumentally more devastating. I can’t really listen to this song all that often as it cuts so deep, but when I do, it never loses its impact.
Also check out: Nine Inch Nails’ “Only,” their best song this decade
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
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.