Last Year a DJ Saved My Life

Radio Gaga's 10 best pop singles of 2004

Now is the happy time of the year, the time when life reprioritizes itself, when conscientious citizens say to their families, "Now is not the time for your distracting companionship, now is the time to make best-of lists." In other words, the anxious consumer, impotent in the presence of global disorder, turns to the taxonomy of the trivial. Except that great pop music isn't trivial, it's essential, the sound of the soul refusing to be subjugated by the icy capitalist structures that support it. Also, it's excellent for dancing and can triple and even quintuple one's enjoyment of automotive travel.

And lest you think that people who obsess over and delight in best-of lists never create anything of real value, get a load of this: "I would arrange [the actors of the day] in order of talent in lists which I used to recite to myself all day and which ended up by hardening in my brain and hampering it by their immovability." That's noted Frenchman Marcel Proust, or at least his fictional alter ego, describing a day well spent. I take comfort in that. Today I write lists. Tomorrow I chill out in a cork-lined room and write a 3,000-page novel (working title: Long (and Not So Long) Ago, Some Things Happened--May I Share Them with You?).

Okay, on to business. If you're among the hundreds of millions of Americans who remain unfamiliar with this column, Radio Gaga provides a (roughly) biweekly opportunity for me to celebrate, make fun of, and attempt to analyze current pop singles. It's mostly about songs in rotation on Top 40, R&B/hip hop, country, pop, and rock radio, but it can also be about failed singles and "focus tracks" promoted to radio stations that for whatever reason kept their focus elsewhere. All Radio Gaga subjects, however, must exist as a single in some real or abstract-yet-meaningful sense--as a video, airplay track, or retail single. True, this age of $.99-per-song downloads offers an abundance of potential "singles," but we can't afford to be too liberal with our definitions.

Yes, well, I suppose you have a point there. But as I said, we simply can't afford such liberality. No, please, I will suffer no more of your pleading.

 

1. BIG & RICH Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)

Describing an ultra-potent drug, writer David Foster Wallace asked us to "envision acid that has itself dropped acid." "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" is beer that is itself drunk on beer. Or a block of cheese that has covered itself with melted Velveeta. Rowdy, loud, fantastic, goofy, designed in the laboratory for high performance in sports arenas yet authentically eccentric, this nominally country, touched by hip hop, rock 'n' roll bumper sticker fulfilled the not-quite-met promise of the Kentucky Headhunters and envisioned a world in which novelty is serious and genres are meaningless.

 

2. ANGIE STONEU-Haul

An ineffably lovely chin-up breakup song co-penned and co-produced by Missy Elliott and with the great Betty Wright offering some vocal support. Despite its title, "U-Haul" doesn't truck, it strolls and bobs at the pace one might take to victory in a slow bike race, all the while offering another reminder that the human voice is the world's greatest instrument.

 

3. BRITNEY SPEARSToxic

Michael Moore can ridicule leading Republican intellectual Spears all he likes, but he'll never make a dance single as dizzyingly fantastic as this Bloodshy and Avant-produced, Cathy Dennis-co-written ode to Bacchus and Basement Jaxx. A deftly layered collection of squiggly synthesizers, oozing sub-bass, spaghetti western guitar, dangerous drug imagery, and wonderfully processed vocals. That vocal processing, by the way, assists rather than compensates for the singer, who comes through with an inspired and, yes, intelligent performance.

 

4. LE TIGRENew Kicks

If you've marched in a protest in the past few years, you've probably heard the following call-and-response chant: "Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!" While there might be too much self-congratulation in that sentiment, the slogan has the advantage of being measurably funkier than exhausted standbys like "What do we want?" (Insert demand). When do we want it? (Insert desired time frame)." Today's foremost pro-pure-democracy slogan and other rabble-rousing oratory can be heard on this alternate-universe smash, a stirring, danceable pastiche in the tradition of Keith LeBlanc's "No Sell Out."

 

5. and 6. JENNIFER LOPEZBaby I Love You!
(R. Kelly remix)

R. KELLYHappy People

This year R. Kelly made a great double album and participated in a string of worthless and irritating collaborations, the glowing exception being a liltingly reconfigured version of a plainly titled love song by a former In Living Color dancer. The for-steppers-only "Happy People" is a love song of a more communal nature, which, given the artist, might suggest something orgiastic. "Happy People," however, is a rather chaste celebration of that giddily profound sense of universal fraternity/sorority one sometimes gets at a good dance club.

 

7. TWISTA FEATURING KANYE WEST AND JAMIE FOXXSlow Jamz

Critics seem to prefer Kanye's "Jesus Walks" to Kanye, Foxx, and Twista's "Slow Jamz," which perhaps indicates that journalists, despite their atheistic reputation, in fact prefer the Messiah to the making of whoopee. Me, I like both (both singles) but favor the naughty one. Favorite line: "She's got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson." Favorite rhyme: "Vandross/pants off." Speaking of whom, cool how Luther's voice still sounds cool all sped up like that, eh?

 

8. MAROON 5This Love

Keith Richards once said that he adopted a distorted guitar sound because it helped his band make up for its lack of a horn section. Among the charms of this rock 'n' soul single is how the fat guitar functions a bit like a baritone sax, while the dinky guitar does its best maraca. It's true that singer Adam Levine uses his falsetto swoops for evil on the 5's lame U2-ish follow-up single, but here his strutting playfulness is proper and sexy. Call it an exceptional song by an unexceptional artist, or Long Live the Single, Part 4,692.

 

9. INTERPOLSlow Hands

As is explained in my case study, I'm still jittery from a dream I had in October of '83, a dream in which a fearsome pack of new-wave Anglophiles beat me over the head with my own formerly near-mint copy of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band's Stranger in Town while chanting "Seg Heil! Seg Heil!" Also I'm irrationally skeptical and/or jealous of people cooler and more coastal than I. These facts help explain why I doggedly resisted Interpol's very pretty, quite funny, and sincerely romantic music. What got me over was Sam Fogarino, who plays the drums very well.

 

10. GRETCHEN WILSONRedneck Woman

We close our Top 10 as we began, with a festive shout-along co-written by John Rich of Big & fame. But whereas "Save a Horse" sounds like a more or less new amalgam, "Redneck Woman" succeeds by riding a large-tired recreational vehicle over familiar ground. Though the lyrics reference Tanya Tucker and the dreaded Kid Rock, "Redneck" is mostly drawn from Chuck Berry's rulebook: Keep it simple, tell a story, include a few jokes, hire a good drummer, and give them what they want without selling your soul, which you'll need for convincing vocal performances.

 

For my full Top 40 favorite 2004 singles, see best-music-of-the-year.blogspot.com

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