Singles only

I pick the songs that make the whole world cry: The voice Andre 3000 wishes he had, a band a lot like the (pre-hype) Strokes, and my favorite record so far this year.

By Thomas Bartlett
Published March 17, 2004 9:44PM (EST)

Welcome to Wednesday Morning Download. Each week, I'll recommend five songs for you to download; some for free, some for pay. Think of this as my suggested soundtrack for your week, the best tunes I've found after listening to practically everything I can get my hands on. I won't stick to a specific genre -- because, do any of us listen to only one type of music? There will be hip-hop and rock, folk and jazz, and a lot that won't be so easily definable, because the best music today frequently is not.

But why the focus on singles? Well, remember when songs were released as singles, album tracks and b-sides? The album tracks and b-sides were often suitable only for die-hard fans or background music. That's starting to happen again, after three decades in which, thanks to the Beatles and their intimidating legacy, the goal of every self-respecting pop artiste was to make a perfect album. Now, as downloading continues to shift the realities of music distribution, albums have become increasingly irrelevant. Instead of the perfect album, most musicians are now in search of the elusive perfect song. Welcome, Salon readers, to the second Age of the Single.

If you feel like taking the time (and risk), most of these songs are available on file-sharing services like Kazaa and Limewire. If not, the digital music stores are fast, easy to use, and at 99 cents per song, reasonably cheap. (Be aware that only the iTunes store supports Mac as well as PC.) And while I'll be scanning the airwaves and ether for each week's suggestions, I'll gladly take your suggestions by e-mail; keep reading to see if they make the cut.

"I'll Be Around," Cee-Lo and Timbaland, from "Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine"
Cee-lo opens by asking "How could I possibly be inconspicuous/ When my flow is so fucking ridiculous," and indeed, it is something of a mystery. But inconspicuous he remains, despite his visionary mess of a debut, "Cee-lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections," and his new "Cee-lo Green Is the Soul Machine," which is nearly as brilliant, and far more consistent. The album has only been out for two weeks, but this single has been around for nearly six months, and never made a dent on the charts. This is strange, as the song is as exciting as anything master hit-maker Timbaland's ever produced, with an unbelievably funky (not a word I throw around lightly) drum and brass beat. Timbaland also raps an uninspired verse in the middle of the song, but all is forgiven for that beat. As good as Cee-lo is as a rapper, he might be even better as a singer, with a bizarre, pliable voice, like Stevie Wonder reborn as a mosquito. It's the voice that Outkast's Andre 3000 wishes he had, and it vaults Cee-lo right to the head of the neo-soul class. For a taste of his singing, and to hear his unique production skills, try "Living Again," or, from his debut, "Closet Freak." Better still, just buy the whole album. You won't be disappointed. (Download: iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Misery Is a Butterfly," Blonde Redhead, from "Misery Is a Butterfly"
The three members of Blonde Redhead, Kazu Makino, and Italian identical twins Amedeo and Simone Pace, define Lower East Side cool -- they're stylish and exotically attractive, and they can often be seen wandering or biking around the hip byways of lower Manhattan, impeccably dressed and fashionably aloof. Their music is hip too: Like their peers in Yo La Tengo, they are one of the few bands to fully bridge the gap between mainstream indie rock and the New York experimental music scene. They once got their inspiration from the cacophonous sonic squall of brilliant no-wave band DNA (they also cribbed their band name from a DNA song), and their incisively dissonant guitar-based sound earned them countless comparisons to Sonic Youth. That sound has been gradually changing, and on their new record, "Misery Is a Butterfly," they've settled into a new and entirely distinctive sonic world, made up of video-game synth sounds and intricate drumming, swathed in dark, Germanic strings and eery harmonies. It's a sound with real emotional heft, and a seductively mysterious, mythic quality. What hasn't changed is Makino's tightrope-walk singing, as taut, delicate and thrilling as ever. If you like this track, go pick up the whole album -- my favorite release of the year so far. Free download: "Misery Is a Butterfly."

"Are You Gonna Be My Girl," Jet, from "Get Born" It may be hard to remember now, but back before the Strokes were labeled the saviors of rock, and the deification and mass critical genuflection got a little hard to take, they were a whole lot of fun. Since rock has already been saved, Jet's Next Big Thing status is necessarily freighted with considerably less Messianic weight. Jet's influences may be a little less cool than the Strokes' -- a bit more AC/DC and the Rolling Stones, considerably less Television and the Velvet Underground -- but they have the same cocksure swagger and nonchalant charisma that made the Strokes so appealing in the first place. "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" has been out for many months, but it just keeps getting more popular, especially as a download, climbing all the way to No. 4 on the iTunes list of most popular songs. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," but then again, "Twist and Shout" sounds a whole lot like "La Bamba," and that never seemed to bother anyone. (Download: iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Waking Memory," Grant Lee Phillips, from "Virginia Creeper"
There's an unfortunate surfeit of husky-voiced male singer-songwriters plying their melancholy trade these days, and just what separates the great few from the mediocre many is a bit of a mystery. Grant Lee Phillips, who used to front the band Grant Lee Buffalo, has never been particularly distinctive, but he's always had something that sets him apart from his peers. Masked beneath the often generic surface of his music, there's an unusual level of canny musicality and emotional depth. It helps that he's assembled such a good band here, including ex-Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, brilliant producer Jon Brion on ukulele, and Greg Leisz, one of the great studio musicians of our time, on slide guitar. But mostly it's the haunting chorus melody, and his whispering, haunted voice. (Download: iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Lull," Andrew Bird, from "Weather Systems"
Singer, violinist and virtuoso whistler Andrew Bird is an extravagantly talented musician who managed, until recently, to make nearly uniformly obnoxious music. His secret? Excessive, often thoughtless virtuosity on the violin; compulsive musical and verbal cleverness at the expense of any depth; and a hokey, self-consciously ironic blend of American folk and swing styles. Recently, though, Bird's been making increasingly appealing music -- perhaps it just took him a few years to detox from his early association with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Here, aided by Lambchop producer Mark Nevers, and by Kevin O'Donnell's beautifully loose drumming, Bird sounds relaxed, and uncannily like Rufus Wainwright. Listen for the lyrics, clever as always, and elegantly woven around the snaky melody. (Free download: "Lull.")

Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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