40

Rehab

Amy Winehouse

Back to Black (2006)

Now that Britney Spears has her shit together, Amy Winehouse has sadly positioned herself to be pop music’s greatest current tragedy. (It’s fitting that the first time I heard “Rehab,” it was in a YouTube clip synced to a montage of Britney singing.) But her personal life aside, Winehouse is an undeniably talented woman, and “Back to Black” was the rare case where an album achieved both commercial and critical success and actually deserved it. “Rehab” sounds so instantly like a long-forgotten soul classic that it’s hard to believe you’re actually hearing a 20-something Jewish Brit singing. Pop music can get pretty predictable sometimes, so to hear this level of musicianship infiltrate top 40 radio is quite a thrill. Here’s hoping Amy gets it together and gives us another addictive dose of retro-soul.

Also check out: Adele’s “Hometown Glory” — another compelling big British voice

30

Who Knew

Pink

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.

27

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.

23

Ring the Alarm

Beyonce

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.