Yes, those iPod ads are annoying, but can you really reproach a company that’s made the majors shake in their boots? I mean, who would’ve thought you could actually sell music online? Apple even wooed U2, the world’s most bombastic rock group, to endorse a signature iPod, thus signifying the company’s share in mass culture. Part of the iPod contract is the iTunes music store, where users can buy exclusive songs, EPs, and other ephemera without having to wait for a posthumous box set or B-sides disc. The perfunctory and endless remix versions of Annie Lennox or, shit, William Hung tracks are as worthless as you should expect. But beneath all that dung lay hidden gems by reliable artists.
The best of the bunch is the Pixies’ “Bam Thwok,” released soon after their reunion. Featuring Kim Deal on lead vocals, it kicks as much ass as any song this year not only because it suggests renewed hope for the greatest alt band ever, but because of how perfectly it weds lyrical harmony to loaded power chords and a carnival-riff organ interlude that smolders and smokes into sloppy bliss. Like “Louie Louie,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” or “Hey Ya!” of yore, its unintelligibility keeps it fun, and more importantly, it reassures us that a teetotaling Deal hasn’t turned into a cynic. Her convincing blindness to race, creed, and gender impresses most when she sings in 50,000 watts, “I love the Universe, I love all the listeners.” On his own separate four-song iTunes set, Black Francis experiments with rockabilly, retarded folk-country, organ-laden surf-punk, and ’50s-greaser barbershop-sludge.
There are rap exclusives, too, though the genre doesn’t fit in so well with the business model because illegal mash-ups and underground remixes tend to trounce label-sanctioned releases. (Remember The Grey Album?) One exception comes from Eminem. Before “Mosh” revealed his receding hairline, Em collaborated with Marilyn Manson to recut “The Way I Am” in a manner that makes him sound more incensed and threatening than ever. The original vocal track’s effect is riveting alongside Marilyn’s guttural low-register growl and industrial-guitar chug-a-chug, in lieu of Dre’s keyboard tinkle. Given Em’s dissipating hatred toward the sexuality Marilyn exploits for whatever diminished shock value, the two sound right together—allying the anger of a white rapper in a black man’s game with a gender-bending satanic freakazoid gives hope that the culturally marginalized could form an army to overthrow American conformity.
Next-big-thing has-beens My Morning Jacket, though, settle for six wet noodles on their iTunes Heartbreakin’ Man EP. And Ryan Adams and Iron & Wine—as prolific as Black Francis, but certainly aware of their boundaries—meanwhile offer a bushel of Dylan-inspired songs. Go figure Adams would take advantage of iTunes to outpour his overabundant narratives on the EP Moroccan Role. But as usual his tunes are solid: the Blonde on Blonde boogie-woogie jingle-jangle of “Ah, Life” and the hobo knee-slapper “Don’t Even Know Her Name” lead one to wonder why he doesn’t reinstate Brill Building-era sausage-making for hipster musicians desperate for a hit.
While Iron & Wine’s “Sinning Hands” is the Nyquil-induced somnambulism songwriter Sam Beam has perfected, his iTunes winner is a cover of Stereolab’s “Peng!,” which he transforms into a little lullaby from his wide-eyed corner of the world. Whether as a bad joke or an example of his isolation, only Beam could comfort a younger generation by claiming “incredible things are happening in this world.” Sure, there’s exclusive iTunes stuff that sucks—PJ Harvey’s live in-studios where she explains song meanings, plus bonus tracks only available with the purchase of an entire digital album, insult a service that values the consumer to pick and choose, not to mention the intelligentsia that iPod’s marketing targets. But Sam Beam’s contributions epitomize why the service works—pay for what you want; leave what stinks like a hard drive confiscated by the RIAA.