The results of my unscientific poll to determine what Salon readers listen to are in, and all I can say is: My goodness, you people really, really like indie-rock ... and nothing else. Almost none of the responses I got mentioned any music that you can hear on the radio, unless you happen to live in a town with a great independent college radio station. Almost no hip-hop, either underground or mainstream, was mentioned. Also missing: folk, jazz, classical and country ... well, basically everything but indie-rock.
But within the realm of indie-rock, preferences diverged radically. Franz Ferdinand, the most buzzed-about band of the moment, was mentioned more than any other -- and never fear, I'll feature one of the band's songs here as soon as their music is available for download. Following close behind the archduke, bands like the Decembrists, the Mountain Goats, the Von Bondies, the Kings of Leon, Iron and Wine, Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse, and Belle and Sebastian all had a number of supporters. But beyond that, it was something of a free-for-all, with many hundreds of bands mentioned once or twice apiece.
Despite the overwhelmingly indie-rock response, I can only assume that there are some closet hit radio listeners out there, that maybe there are even some of you who, like me, think that Britney Spears' "Toxic" is a pretty great song. This week, I hope there's something for everyone, as we move from schlockmeister Sting all the way down to sadcore queen Shannon Wright.
"Stolen Car (Take Me Dancing)," Sting and Twista, single
The world's fastest rapper (Guinness Book) and its longest-lasting lover (unsubstantiated drunken boast) have teamed up for a far-from-inevitable collaboration. Although, in retrospect, it makes sense that Twista, fresh from his "Slow Jamz" triumph (and really, has there been a better song on the radio this year?), would join forces with the Tantric love god himself, the king of the adult-alternative slow jam. This track is actually a remix of "Stolen Car," from Sting's "Sacred Love," a song about a car thief imagining the life of the rich man whose car he's just stolen, with a lovely but incongruous chorus on the well-worn "take me dancing" theme. Like all of Sting's recent music, the original was a little flaccid, and it turns out that Twista's energy and rhythmic propulsiveness was just what it needed to liven it up a bit. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)
"Closest Thing to Heaven," Tears for Fears, from "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending"
The British take their Christmas singles very seriously -- for a few weeks every December, all eyes are on the singles chart, and the battle to be No. 1 on Christmas Day becomes a national drama. This year, in a surprise victory, the winning single was a cover of the not particularly Christmasy Tears for Fears song "Mad World" by Gary Jules, an obscure singer-songwriter from California. Stranger still, Jules' cover, which played over the closing credits of the excellent "Donnie Darko," had already been out for more than two years when it won. I'd love to feature the song in this column, but unfortunately it's not available anywhere for download. Luckily, the two original members of Tears for Fears, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, have used the press surrounding "Mad World" as an excuse to reform, and "Closest Thing to Heaven" is the first single from their forthcoming LP, "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending." And oh, what a song: with big juicy piano chords, Orzabal's classic rock voice, and some humorously meandering bass playing. Just when it seems to be getting stuck in a boring, folk-rock sound, the chorus comes around, and that's when you remember: This is Tears for Fears, and these guys can really write a chorus. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)
"Musicology," Prince, from "Musicology"
My loyalty, once earned, is not easily lost, and if an artist has moved me, I will stubbornly stick by that artist through mediocrity and worse. But it became difficult to think of Prince as anything but a joke when I heard his digitally lowered voice intoning a religious parable over smooth jazz grooves on the opening track of his Jehovah's Witness epic, "The Rainbow Children." So this song, the lead single from his forthcoming "Musicology" LP, is a nice surprise. Prince tells us it's an "old school joint for the true funk soldiers," and over a straight-ahead funk groove, he name-checks the greats, from Sly to James Brown to Earth, Wind and Fire. Prince's singing sounds great, with his inimitable swagger, his unrestrained cockiness and the rhythmic precision of those ever-present orgasmic grunts (although since Prince supposedly doesn't sing about sex anymore, I suppose I should call them grunts of spiritual enlightenment). I wouldn't say that "Musicology" ranks with Prince's great singles from the '80s, but it's a good song from a great artist, and, as he says, "Wish I had a dollar/ for every time you say/ 'Don't you miss the feeling/ music gave you back in the day?'" (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)
"Start/Stop," The Pale, from "Gravity Gets Things Done"
I knew I was going to like this song right from the opening, when I heard the echoey, heavily compressed drums and reverb-heavy guitar drones around them -- not unusual sounds, by any means, but an unusual level of care had clearly gone into making these sound particularly good. The song is also structured carefully, moving from intimate, hushed sections with just vocals and keyboards to soaring, guitar-driven climaxes, without ever feeling forced or contrived. Vocalist Gabe Archer has one of those achingly sincere emo voices that can be so hard to take, but thankfully he keeps the whininess in check, and he has a beautiful melodic sense. This is essentially emo all prettied up into indie-pop, not unlike many of the bands making waves on MTV and Fuse right now. But even though the Pale is still relatively unknown, and on a small label, it's a cut above the competition. Free Download: "Start/Stop"
"Black Little Stray," Shannon Wright, from "Over the Sun"
I've seen Shannon Wright live a number of times, opening for bands like Low and the Dirty Three, and come away entirely unimpressed, and often quite irritated, by her wailing, screaming, headache-inducing performance style. But while I've consequently avoided her records, I've also wondered why bands I like so much continue to choose her as their opening act, so when Wright's label, Touch and Go, posted a free track from her new "Over the Sun," I downloaded it -- and was pleasantly surprised. This is a strange, mesmerizing song. The anger I heard in her live performances is here, but it's used to great effect: the real hook of the song is in the sudden contrasts between frantic bursts of guitar and her nearly whispered, oh-so-controlled and quite creepy singing. Free Download: "Black Little Stray"