This will be the last "Best of 2006" list. I promise. Before I moved to Buenos Aires I had all kinds of outlets to force my opinions on people. Now I only have the internet to soothe my ego, so let's just get this over with. Although not a strong year for albums, the singles of 2006 were quite good, especially in the worlds of hip-hop and R&B. Here's what I liked:
1. T.I. - "What You Know" (Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
A straight classic hip-hop number from the so-called "King of the South." T.I. lives up to the title here, but the undeniable star is the backing track provided by producer DJ Toomp. The instrumental alone could crack my singles list. Something about those triumphant synths just burrows into your head and refuses to leave. Cruising along at a medium tempo, the song gives the impression that T.I. knows just how dope he is. Why hurry when there's nothing left to prove? The song hits hardest during the repeated line, "What you know about that?" I know that this song is a fucking jam. And that's enough.
2. Liars - "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" (Mute)
For an album filled with utter conflict and chaos, Drum's Not Dead also contained a few moments of serene beauty. On this track, Liars shed the squall and get back to basics. Besides the vocals, there's little than some sparse atmospherics and a noodling guitar. Noticeably absent are the drums that dominated the rest of the album. Here the vocals take center stage, with lines like "If you need me, I can always be found" and "If you want me to stay, I will stay by your side". There's something melancholy yet hopeful about the song and it's an unusual way to wrap up an album so dominated by darkness and terror. Regardless of the band's intentions, the track is a welcome respite and perhaps the finest piece of music the band has ever made.
3. Gnarls Barkley - "Crazy" (Downtown/Atlantic)
There's not much more to be said about this track. It's a beast, an international megahit. As one of those few songs that grandparents and cool kids can agree upon, you'll find no argument from me. It's too bad Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo couldn't extend the magic for an entire album, as St. Elsewhere was wildly uneven. However, "Crazy" is truly the defining pop tune of 2006.
4. Justin Timberlake featuring T.I. - "My Love" (Jive)
Timbaland deserves some kind of award. The man has been the defining hip-hop producer for years now, yet the artists he works with get all the fame. I guess he'll just have to comfort himself with the mountains of cash he's earned along with the insane level of cred he's gained in the music community. In the wrong hands, "My Love" could have been a disaster - just another sappy ballad from a boy band refugee. But Timbaland takes a ridiculous synth riff from the shitty trance anthem playbook, slows it down, adds some drums and just happens to make a song that's a stone-cold jam. Seriously folks, a trance riff? Timbaland could sample polka and make it sound fresh. Oh yeah, that Timberlake kid can sing alright too. Bonus points to T.I. for weaseling his way onto one of the biggest tracks of the year.
5. Peter Bjorn & John - "Young Folks" (Witchita)
Sweden might be the coolest place on the planet. Swedes are so cool that most people have no idea just how cool they are. Cool clothes, cool furniture, cool music - they've got it all. Maybe there is some secret coolness gene in Swedish DNA. Whatever they're doing, it's working. "Young Folks" is just a breezy midtempo indiepop song. There is literally no urgency. It sounds like the boys were just sitting around and decided to make a little pop tune on a whim. Peter says "let's add some bongos" while Bjorn is like "cool, how about some whistling". John chimes in and says "let's get our pal Victoria from the Concretes to come over and lay down a vocal harmony". They probably finished the whole thing in 15 minutes and then left to get cool haircuts and buy modular furniture. Sweden is the coolest.
6. Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland - "Promiscuous" (Geffen)
I wasn't kidding about an award for Timbaland. Who else could take a passe hippyish singer for the granola coffeehouse set and transform her into genuine sexpot? Have you seen the video for this track? Remember the feelgood wierdo who sang "I'm like a bird"? Apparently that girl died and has been replaced by a svelte and slinky lady who is genuine wank material for boys of all ages. Who knew it was possible? Apparently Timbaland. Once again, his production is on point. Off-kilter drums, synth stabs and tons of odd little flourishes make this track yet another Timbaland classic. Only one thing about this song doesn't make sense - has anyone else noticed that the girl doesn't seem to be all that promiscuous? Timbaland spends half the song trying to talk his way into her panties and she doesn't seem to be going for it. If she was really promiscuous, she'd let him do her in the bathroom stall at the club. I'm just saying.
7. Too Short - "Blow the Whistle" (Up All Nite/Jive)
In a year when hyphy dominated the Bay Area hip hop scene, leave it to an old school master like Too Short to drop the hottest Bay rap tune of the year. Even though Too Short relocated to Atlanta several years back, he's still repping Oakland. The track pays lip service to the hyphy movement, but this tune is really just another entry in a long line of Too Short classics. The man hits on some of his favorite themes (Oakland, his own rap skills, getting frisky with the ladies) and his game is still tight, even on album number 16 (which he of course makes sure to point out).
8. E-40 - "Tell Me When to Go" (BME/Warner Bros.)
As far as the hyphy movement is concerned, "Tell Me When to Go" is THE anthem. Solidifying E-40's position as one of the dons of the Bay Area rap game, this track alerted the rest of the world that Bay Area hip hop was back. After years of sleep-inducing "conscious" Bay Area rap, this track really woke everyone up and got the party started again. Best of all, "Tell Me When to Go" is basically a hyphy instruction manual. Stunna shades? Check. Thizz face? Yup. Going dumb? Not a bad thing after all. Ghostride the Whip? You know it. It's all here. Your mom could get hyphy after listening to this song.
9. The Federation - "18 Dummy" (Reprise/Warner Bros.)
Although E-40 snagged the hyphy spotlight on a national level, much of the credit should really go to The Federation and their producer Rick Rock. They've been talking about hyphy for years but no one outside of the Bay Area was listening. Well, if they keep dropping tracks like "18 Dummy," finding listeners shouldn't be a problem. An ode to getting wasted on 1800 Jose Cuervo Tequila, what really separates this song from the pack is the Rick Rock beat. Reminiscent of old-school electro, it clocks in around 120 beats per minute and immediately establishes a truly hyphy vibe. The actual rapping is secondary here, as "18 Dummy" is all about getting crazy and losing control. The Federation are here to party - let someone else be subtle and introspective.
10. Cassie - "Me & U" (Bad Boy)
I thought I hated this song. The beat is little more than a basic drum track and a few taps on a keyboard. How many notes are in this track? Four? Five? Honestly, a little kid could have stumbled across this melody. But I quickly realized that the simplicity is what makes this track great. Even the vocal is unassuming, as there's no over-the-top vocal theatrics to be found. There is a genuine void in the this song, both in the music and Cassie's delivery. In a R&B genre plagued by overproduced tracks that are too often weighed down with frivolous bells and whistles, "Me & U" whittles the music down to the bare essentials. The result is a very refreshing slice of pop R&B.
11. The Pack - "Vans" (Up All Nite/Jive)
You know the Bay Area hip hop scene was popping when a group of kids from Berkeley High School turns out a track like this one. With a minimal beat and laid back feel, "Vans" is not a club banger. However, the lyrics are amazing. It's four hip hop kids rapping about shoes - Vans. They even refer to Vans as a "punk rock shoe." What the do these kids know about punk? I'm guessing about as much as the white kids at their school know about hip hop. Regardless, the Pack gets major props for not taking the easy way out and rapping about hyphy like everyone else this year. These guys must be the kings of their school. Can you imagine being in high school with a hit song on the radio? The Pack must be setting records for getting laid. They probably have to designate break times for their genitals. This is depressing.
12. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - "Young Shields" (Tomlab)
Speaking of depressing, Owen Ashworth took his music to a new level this year with the stellar Etiquette. "Young Shields" was undoubtedly the standout track. When compared with much of his earlier work, this song really picks up the pace. Plus you can actually hear Ashworth's vocals - clearly! Filled out with some swirling synths and clever lyrics, "Young Shields" is a lovely nugget of synth pop goodness.
13. Rick Ross - "Hustlin'" (Def Jam)
"Who you think you fucking with, I'm the fucking boss." I could probably stop there, because that opening line pretty much sums up the whole song. This is hands down the most epic hip hop cut of 2006. What else would you expect from a 6 foot, 300 lb. monster like Rick Ross? Oozing confidence and grandeur, Ross is letting everyone know that he's the baddest motherfucker on the block. Would you question him? Also, he apparently knows all about slinging coke, so maybe you can score some china white if you stay on his good side. Or maybe he'd just turn you into a drug mule. Frankly, I'd probably do just about anything Rick Ross told me to do.
14. TV on the Radio - "Wolf Like Me" (Interscope)
The biggest rocker from the excellent Return to Cookie Mountain shows TV on the Radio at their best. The band is going full throttle and there's a genuine sense that everything could spin wildly out of control at any moment. Plus the lyrics are all about being a werewolf. Running around and howling at the moon in the middle of the night sounds fun to me, especially if TV on the Radio is supplying the soundtrack.
15. Yung Joc - "I Know You See It" (Bad Boy South)
Just plain dirty. Any song with the line "chewing on the dick like a piece of bubble yum" is certainly pushing the boundaries of good taste. Also, how much oral sex has Yung Joc experienced if he relishes this "chewing" technique? Someone should tell that guy that teeth and oral sex usually don't mix. Questions of sexual technique aside, "I Know You See It" is an insanely catchy synth-driven hip hop track. The filthiest guilty pleasure of the year.
16. Justice - "Waters of Nazareth" (Vice)
This French duo serves up electro just the way I like it - tough and gritty. In a somewhat lackluster year for electronic music, Justice really came through with this one. Granted it's one of those electronic songs for the rock set, but "Waters of Nazareth" cooks from start to finish. Full of raw, dirty synths, it's Daft Punk run ragged. Nothing is cleaned up here. Justice get in your face and stay there with an unrelenting barrage of filtered synth mayhem. The experience is intense, but you won't want to back down.