The Quarterly Report: The Summer's Best Singles
Shockingly enough, only one of these guys made the list
I said yesterday that this has been a weak three months for albums, but it's been pretty great for singles, and that always seems to be the way things play out. There hasn't really been a definitive summer jam yet, but we've been blessed with plenty of weird one-offs and regional curios and molten posse-cuts and promising pop experiments. Like everyone else on this planet, I have a way of flipping my shit and totally overreacting whenever I hear a pop song I like, so a few quick caveats before we get into this. I was wrong about "Deja Vu"; it's still a strong pop single, but it's nowhere near as good as "Ain't No Other Man," let alone "Crazy in Love." And I'm going to punch someone in the neck the next time I hear "Promiscuous Girl." Cell phone ads will do that to you, and that Nelly Furtado album turned out to be hot Chinatown garbage; I have no excuse. All that said, here are ten songs I'm overreacting to right now.
1. Baby Cham feat. Akon: "Ghetto Story (Remix)." One of my favorite moments from Summer Jam: Sean Paul interrupts his own listless early-evening set to bring Cham to the stage, and the crowd immediately wakes up as he rips through the first verse of "Ghetto Story," building intensity until it sounds like he's gargling magma, and then getting to the hook, whereupon all 60,000 people in Giants Stadium put their hands in the air and chant along with the frantic "Rah! Rah Rah! Rah!" bit; you can see it here. I haven't heard a ton of dancehall this year, but I like the idea that last year's old-school one-drop reggae craze has evaporated but left behind enough traces that dancehall now has a new gravity. I don't know if that's true or not, but this song certainly bears it out; the mid-80s drum-triggers and negative space and dystopian fury and cinematic reach all put this song in a class with "Welcome to Jamrock." The song was a monster on its own, but I like the Akon version even better. Akon's airy falsetto works against Cham's fire-and-brimstone roar, and I like how his story overlaps with Cham's without the two ever making direct contact. It's like both stories are part of a larger narrative of poverty and violence and anger and sadness, sort of like how the George Clooney and Matt Damon storylines in Syriana barely ever intersect but work together to build something larger. And so the best song of the summer of 2006 turns out to be a heavy, cathartic, darkly compelling blast of bad faith, which sounds about right.
2. Ray Cash feat. Scarface: "Bumpin My Music." I guess Ray Cash's album is out now, though it's not like Sony did a whole lot to clue people in. But then, there's nothing all that attention-grabbing about Cash; one of the great things about "Bumpin My Music" is that it's so unassuming, a calm and matter-of-fact song about the real and uncomplicated pleasure you get from driving around and playing Too Short and Devin the Dude and Usher. The horns get a bit urgent on the hook, but everything else in the track stays at a low boil: rattling drums, oscillating synth, Cash's nimble monotone. When Scarface shows up on the third verse talking about Ice-T and Kool G Rap, he adds a sort of effortless authority, but he doesn't really do much to announce his presence. It's not an immediate song; it's the sort of thing that bleeds out into the air and slowly seeps into your brain. In other words, it's pretty much custom-engineered to work in exactly the same way as the music that Cash and Scarface are talking about on the song; it sounds fucking amazing when you're driving around. See how that works?
3. Big & Rich: "8th of November." I gave the second Big & Rich album a listen or two when it dropped last year, but I didn't hear anything remotely as hard or fun or immediate as "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," and so I wrote it off as some second-string watered-down party-time shit, Goof Troop to the first album's DuckTales. And then this song just came along and ambushed me when I was watching CMT last week; it's exactly the sort of song that benefits from a great video. The Whistler-from-Blade intro is a bit much, but the vintage stock-footage and the grizzled-but-dignified old guy in his suit give a real heft and gravity to a song that already had plenty of it, a soaring and stately power-ballad about a kid from South Dakota who almost gets killed during one of the first battles of the Vietnam War. It's sappy as hell, of course; when I ran into Chuck Eddy at a Fourth of July party earlier this week, he said it was Big & Rich's "November Rain" and "Civil War" at the same time (like that was a bad thing). But it's pointed and specific and movingly empathetic, and this stuff can just tear you to pieces if you let it. You should let it.
4. DJ Khaled feat. Lil Wayne, Paul Wall, Fat Joe, Rick Ross & Pitbull: "Holla At Me." I already wrote an entire column about this song, and at least in New York it's not turning into the summer monster I was hoping it would be. But it's still maybe the strongest, most exciting club-jam of the year. The beat jacks "Looking for the Perfect Beat" just perfectly, slowing its synth-blips down so they have room to breathe but not so much that they lose their propulsive bounce. Five famous rappers allow themselves to play second-fiddle to the beat, staying out of the way and hitting their cues in perfect time so that none of them overwhelms the track and each one of them adds something. The track has two great rappers (Lil Wayne and Pitbull) and three not-great rappers, but no one tries to steal the show with big lines; what matters is the cumulative effect of hearing all these guys stacked up in a row, keeping things moving. It's a model of efficiency, and that's no small praise.
5. Nore feat. Big Mato, Nina Sky, La Negra, Fat Joe, Chingo Bling, Lil Rob & Lumidee: "Mas Maiz." Two reasons I don't really give a fuck about reggaeton: I speak exactly zero Spanish, and I don't much like the idea of an entire genre that keeps recycling the exact same beat over and over. Those are quibbles, but they're big enough quibbles to keep me from switching over to La Kalle very often. "Mas Maiz" feels bigger than those quibbles; I don't understand hardly any of the lyrics, but it certainly feels like a transcendently joyous celebration of pan-Spanish pride even if the Fader is right and it's really just about getting head. Chingo Bling is one of the only guys to deliver his verse in English, and his "bobblehead in hand / Make me do the running man" stuff is goofy enough to convince me that everyone here is having a blast. And the drums get pushed to the back behind some liquid-fast acoustic guitars. Everything moves fast; most of the people on the track barely get a few seconds to make an impression, and so everything bleeds into this messy but perfect whole. It may be naive, but when somebody at the end of the track mumbles about "this is not about making a hit; it's about making a classic," I believe him.
6-10: Christina Aguilera: "Ain't No Other Man"; Rick Ross: "Hustlin'"; Eric Church: "How 'Bout You"; Justice: "Waters of Nazareth"; Beyonce feat. Jay-Z: "Deja Vu."