The game belongs to them
Happy birthday, America!
1. UGK feat. OutKast: “International Player’s Anthem”
So much about this song makes me happy that I don’t even know where to start. It’s four of my favorite rappers indulging their greatest strengths and playing off each other like the veterans they are. Andre 3000’s blissy starry-eyed musings dissolves into Pimp C’s triumphant sneer. Bun B’s authoritative grown bluster sticks to the beat with ridiculous technical prowess, and immediately afterward Big Boi darts in and out of it, treating it as little more than a suggestion but never letting it drift away from him. And that beat: one of the most beautiful moments in soul-music history looped and extended for four and a half minutes with enormous booming drums artfully arranged underneath it. The level of chemistry and mastery that every single person involved in this track exhibits is just otherworldly. And it’s almost frustrating: there are still geniuses working in the medium of pop music, but those geniuses come together and let their brilliance run wild so rarely that it feels like cause for celebration whenever it happens. Why can’t it happen more often? It did used to happen more often, didn’t it? Because this song feels like a sudden and unexpected thunderstorm in the middle of a long drought; you just want to stand outside and stare up at the sky and soak it all in. Also, this should go without saying, but “International Player’s Anthem” has the best music video of the year. Everything about this shit is beautiful.
2. LCD Soundsystem: “All My Friends”
I probably shouldn’t even be using this space to talk about this, and I don’t want to make too big of a thing out of it, but a few months ago, a good college friend of mine died. From what I’m told, he was walking across someone’s driveway, and a car backing out of that driveway somehow hit him hard enough to kill him, which doesn’t make any sense at all; I don’t know the specifics, and I don’t want to know them. It’s basically impossible to find anything good to say about a situation like this; news like that can just rip you to pieces if you let it. Before my friend died, I didn’t see my friends from school nearly often enough, and I still probably don’t; a million other things always seem to get in the way. But we did all come together in the weeks after my friend died, and one line from “All My Friends” kept repeating itself over and over in my head that whole time: “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / And the next five years trying to be with your friends again.” I don’t necessarily know what James Murphy meant when he wrote those lines, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with what my group of friends was going through. But I do know that those lines made perfect sense to me, and I know that I couldn’t get them out of my head, that I didn’t want to. The song itself is beautiful: a drawn-out lament that slowly and assuredly swells up and breathes out. The “All My Friends” EP has Franz Ferdinand and John Cale both doing really powerful covers of the song. I like the video a lot. But that one line is what’s always going to stick with me. I graduated college almost exactly five years before my friend died. That line destroys me, and it will probably keep destroying me every time I hear this song for the rest of my life.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on LCD Soundsystem
3. DJ Khaled feat. Akon, T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman & Lil Wayne: “We Takin’ Over”
It’s funny; I sort of can’t stand DJ Khaled, even though he’s already been responsible for two songs that I love without reservation. I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about the three verses in the middle of this song, though all three guys actually manage to rap on-beat, which I guess I should be happy about. There’s no emotional punch to this song; compared to the above two, it’s about as cynical a concoction as can be imagined. But this is still a triumphant moment for everyone involved. Khaled put together this cast of characters explicitly hoping to end up with the song of the summer, and he actually succeeded, which is crazy. I love Akon’s gloriously meaningless chorus. I love the way the Danja’s synth-riff sounds like it’s about to devolve into complete static and how the epic fake-opera-vocals underneath it contrast against its ringtone insistence. I love T.I.’s brisk and efficient opening verse, the way he drawls out the names of a whole bunch of tour-stops but makes it sound like a statement of eternal dominance. And Wayne’s closing verse is just a thing of deranged beauty, a wild and guttural and eloquent distillation of his recent run. Listening to this song, I feel like I’m a thousand feet tall.
4. Shop Boyz: “Party Like a Rock Star”
This song is my ringtone. A couple of days ago, I was on a Chinatown bus from Virginia to New York, and I heard this song playing, so I reached for my phone, but it was someone else’s phone ringing. And I might just be imagining this, but I’m pretty sure I saw a couple of other people reaching into their pockets when the song started playing. You know a song is conquering the universe when it can get like four people on the same bus to reach for their phones. “Party Like a Rock Star” is just an ecstatically dumb, virtually undeniable song, but there’s a whole lot to be said about it. I wonder if the Shop Boyz’ total misreading of all these rock tropes is intentional, and I’d sure like to imagine that it is, though it doesn’t particularly matter either way. About six different lines in the song still make me laugh out loud every time I hear it even now, and that guitar riff fits the song’s content and aesthetic perfectly. I love the remix, where Jim Jones rhymes Ozzy with Maserati and Chamillionaire calls himself “Bruce Bling-Steen,” but it can’t quite touch the original track’s amateurish joy. And there’s a great essay to be written about the way the song flips cultural stereotypes around, but someone else already wrote it, so I guess I’ll just go with the ringtone thing instead.
5. Jason Aldean: “Johnny Cash”
In my ACM Awards running diary, I called Jason Aldean a “fucking badass.” Aldean’s publicist read that post, and she invited me out for beers with her and Aldean when Aldean was in town to play “Johnny Cash” on Good Morning America a few weeks later. My impression of Aldean isn’t so much that he’s a badass but that he’s a totally normal and solid dude who’s still a bit bemused about his encroaching stardom; he drinks Michelob Ultra, for God’s sake. But that unassuming Aldean isn’t anywhere to be heard on “Johnny Cash”; instead the song finds him playing the badass I first imagined: flipping off his boss, jumping in the car, getting married in Vegas on a whim. (By commercial country standards, this is GG Allin-level stuff.) The song sounds way more like Montgomery Gentry than Johnny Cash; it simply evokes Cash’s name as a general signifier for freedom, for refusing to let day-to-day drudgery beat you down. The central riff would be a whole lot of fun to play in Guitar Hero, and the cowbell would keep Will Ferrell busy. Aldean covers Guns N Roses in concert. Ten or fifteen years ago, this song would’ve been considered straight-up rock. But country has absorbed all this awesome shit that rock has apparently forgotten, and that’s as good a reason as any to keep an eye on the genre. Anthems like this one deserve to be heard.
6-10. Amerie: “Gotta Work”; T.I. feat. Wycelf: “You Know What It Is”; Cut Copy: “Hearts On Fire”; Kanye West: “Stronger”; Kelly Rowland feat. Eve: “Like This”