Sunday, December 13th, 2009

The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009: Round 1, Group 5

Steve Holdsworth: So then, Group 5 of the first round of The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009 – stupidly long title, if you ask me, but that’s just my opinion. Five songs here, though: Busy Signal, who is… Jamaican, single called “Da Style Deh”. Apparently it’s done rather well, though I’ve no idea why, unlike our next contender, “Electro Movimiento” by the Puerto Rican group Calle 13 featuring Cuci Amador. All the stuff with the rapping, and the pantsuits, and the ninjas, that’s all rubbish, but that chorus is really nice, you know, really very… good. “Trap Goin’ Ham” by Pill, who is from… Atlanta… which is in the state of Georgia, of course… that’s another one I like, because a problem with a lot of the singers today, they brag about the cars and the women, but Pill is bragging about an actual skill – not about what he’s bought, but an actual skill. “My name’s Pill, I’m very good at baking, and I take great pride in my ability in… that… field.” That’s what you want to see, and for my money, pop music today would be in a far better state if more people followed his example, rather than this next wally, Ne-Yo, and “Part of the List”, which is a man singing about a list. Really. That’s it. But, well, if that’s what people want, then, well, tremendous, and I say they’re welcome to it, you know, I’m not going to stop them, but just don’t expect me to like it, because I ain’t gonna. But that’s just my opinion, of course, you’re welcome to disagree, but what I will say about this last one, “I’m On a Boat” by The Lonely Island and T-Pain – if you’re going to be on a boat, wearing a trench coat, then you should be wearing trousers. Wearing a trench coat with swimming trunks… frankly, I have been on boats, lots of boats, many boats, and I can say that on… pretty much any of those boats, if you’d dressed like that, you would not have found yourself on that boat for very long. Anyway, enough of me – two of these songs get to go through to the next round, so we’d better get on with things…

Frank Kogan: Surely, this is the Group Of Death, top two running neck-and-neck and three and four only a hair behind. I give the Group Cup to the Lonely Island ’cause of how exuberantly they splish and splash into the ocean-bath of foamy, undeserved luxury (5 points). Ne-Yo at number two is the opposite, the guy in his thin sweet voice obsessively listing all he lost when he lost the woman, wounding himself with quick little jabs, onto infinity (3 points). It’s only in the context of those two that Busy Signal’s gorgeous ululations sound a bit standard (2 points). Sorry Mr. Signal that I’m not ranking you higher. (Btw, the GreenMoney Liquid Re-Rub of Busy Signal’s “Tic Toc” is a sure thing for my end of the year top fifty.) Meanwhile “Trap Goin’ Ham” is dogged, eye-level dealing under the sparkling, menacing Georgia night. Love the style, though this decade’s given us scores of similarly good tracks from Jeezy et al (1 point). “Electro Movimiento” is glum boys having fun, is the only one here that feels forced and tired: Cuci Amador is too cautious to go full-scale into the freestyle passion that the song promises, and the Calle guys can’t zing the beats or the words like they need to. This isn’t bad, but it’s indie (0 points).

STANDINGS: Lonely 5, Ne-Yo 3, Signal 2, Pill 1, Calle 0

Andrew Casillas: The win here HAS to go to Calle 13 (5 points). Not many rap acts could make the sort of obtuse, sardonic, and progressive music that they make, and “Electro Movimiento” only ups the insanity–it’s a wonderful mix of Daft Punk, 808, and John Travolta. “Trap Goin’ Ham” (3 points)and “I’m on a Boat” (2 points)get points for imaginative lyricism, but “Trap Goin’ Ham” didn’t need a music video to keep my interested. While I’m also quite a big fan of Ne-Yo’s, and Year of the Gentleman in particular, “Part of the List” was a bit overwrought for my tastes (1 point). If the production were any lighter, it could pass for a Backstreet Boys album track. And while I’m sure Busy Signal has better songs, but “Da Style Deh” kept making me wonder why Dizzee Rascal was yelling indecipherable things at me (0 points).

STANDINGS: Lonely 7, Calle 5, Ne-Yo 4, Pill 4, Signal 2

Melissa Bradshaw: Busy Signal is up there with the best of Ninjaman (5 points). Ne-Yo comes second because I can’t help my soft spot for the perfect RnB ballad (3 points). “I’m On a Boat” is such an obvious joke but they carry it the fuck off (plus satirising autotone needs to be done this year) (2 points). Pill is brilliant but there’s not enough to distinguish him yet (1 point). Calle 13 reminds me of my problem with “Heads Will Roll” – too much looking to the 80s for a new direction – but my judgment may be impaired by not being saturated in reggaeton (0 points)?

STANDINGS: Lonely 9, Signal 7, Ne-Yo 7, Calle 5, Pill 5

Rodney J. Greene: I’ll take Busy Signal’s goofy Africanisms (3 points) over Calle 13’s goofy freestylisms (2 points) over the Lonely Island’s goofy Khaledisms (0 points) and Pill’s goofy food metaphors over any of them (5 points), possibly because he’s the only one from that list who can put his absurdities over with a straight face. I’ve gotten more play out of “Trap Goin’ Ham” than just about any track this year and the contrast between its novelty and dead-serious urgency is one of its greatest strengths. The Ne-Yo (1 point) and Calle 13 songs were old hat to me by the beginning of the year, let alone when we reviewed them, but while Shaffer’s well-crafted ballad has remained solid and steady, the Puertoricanos’ ’80s pastiche has seperated from its flavor, gotten back together, and tied the knot.

STANDINGS: Signal 10, Pill 10, Lonely 9, Ne-Yo 8, Calle 7

Jordan Sargent: “Trap Goin’ Ham” is a song that rightfully launched mini-stardom (5 points). Its energy is unbridled, and like most singles, it finds its rapper splitting the difference between great lyricism and lyrics that work for a single. Pill writes better, but this showcases the total package. What I love about “Da Style Deh” (3 points) is its open space— it doesn’t pummel like a ton of dancehall (from what I can tell Busy excels at this); instead, it simmers and bubbles and has a few great hooks to boot. It might not work in the steamiest of clubs, but it’s better for it. “Part of the List” is a great little song that it seems like only Ne-Yo would have the balls to write (amongst his R&B contemporaries), and while I think its theme is a bit cheesy, it has an undeniable, yet measured, chorus (2 points). I would like “I’m on a Boat” a bit more if it didn’t underutilize T-Pain as a signpost (1 point). Samberg and co. revealed themselves to be more shrewd hip-hop satirists than I anticipated, but skewering Khaled Culture and relegating T-Pain to ad-libs kind of misses the point. As for “Electro Movimiento,” well, I prefer Gaga (0 points).

STANDINGS: Pill 15, Signal 13, Ne-Yo 10, Lonely 10, Calle 7

Edward Okulicz: “Electro Movimiento” has to get the gong (5 points) here just because its chorus could destroy an entire city. I’m not big into the verses which are more mumbled than rapped, but even when my fellow jukeboxers could feel a bit of robot/machine metaphor fatigue, the cry of “break the circuitry” hits hard in the head and the feet. “Part of the List” is a generic Ne-Yo fourth single, or whatever, but if it’s filler, or not as good as “Closer” or any of the n thousand hits he’s written for other people, it’s immaculately crafted, charismatically-delivered filler. Wet lyrics, top tune, basically (3 points). “I’m On A Boat” might be the year’s best joke strung out a verse too far (2 points), and I have to admit as annoying as the chorus is, the gags in the verses are actually authentically bad-ass (for white people) AND preposterously silly. I’ve put Busy Signal in fourth as I can tell it’s a quality example of a genre I don’t care about (1 point) and because “Trap Goin’ Ham” makes me want to go on an adorable kitten killing spree because it so fills me with hate and other bad feelings (0 points).

STANDINGS: Pill 15, Signal 14, Ne-Yo 13, Calle 12, Lonely 12

Kat Stevens: Ne-Yo proved the least memorable (0 points), Calle 13 doesn’t stand out amongst the rest of this year’s electro (1 point). The other three are all highly enjoyable (Busy Signal, 2 points) (more songs about ham please (3 points)) but Lonely Island is the one I will sing at the top of my voice through the T-Pain iPhone app, nautical themed pashmina afghan fluttering in the sea breeze (5 points).

STANDINGS: Pill 18, Lonely 17, Signal 16, Calle 13, Ne-Yo 13

Michaelangelo Matos: Given how much I loved Year of the Gentleman, Ne-Yo is a gimme (5 points), but this group ranked itself. The Pill track grew on me big time (3 points), Busy Signal is a lovely glossy thing, but I honestly never remember either very well until they’re playing again (2 points). There’s a kind of anodyne quality to this batch that marks it as very 2009: if you’re paying close attention there’s pleasure to be had, but I’d never try to sell anyone on its richness in whole. Especially with a just-OK Calle 13 track (1 point) and a not-funny-the-first-time Lonely Island one rounding it out (0 points).

STANDINGS: Pill 21, Signal 18, Ne-Yo 18, Lonely 17, Calle 14

Matt Cibula: Tough as my 2/3 are more or less tied with 4 — the Lonely Island track is kind of funny (and I quoted it the last time I was on a boat) but it’s weak as a single (0 points) compared with African-chomping dancehall (Busy Signal, 1 point), swoony weird laments (Ne-Yo, 2 points), and post-T.I. regretful drug tales (Pill, 3 points). Still, overall I will always side with Calle 13 (5 points), simply one of the most inventive, nimble-witted, sarcastically passionate musical acts we have ever had.

STANDINGS: Pill 24, Ne-Yo 20, Signal 19, Calle 19, Lonely 17

Tal Rosenberg: I wish I’d heard the Busy Signal song earlier, since I love the fluidity with which the beat moves. The backdrop is all liquid: Gulps of saliva as bass beats, bongos like stones skipping across smooth streams, snaps falling like raindrops. Busy Signal is gracefully flailing in all the spray, while an aurally smiling chorus sings joyfully behind him (5 points). Is there anything more to say about Lonely Island at this point, other than reiterating that it’s become the meme-that’s-more-than-a-meme. The beat is boilerplate, so for my money I prefer the overcooked and funnier “Like a Boss” (3 points). Calle 13 can’t swagger like T.I, Lil Wayne, or Kanye, but they can swagger nonetheless; Cuci Amador, on the other hand, doesn’t have the sass to match; the beat reminds me of Boney M, kinda (2 points). I don’t think Ne-Yo should have chosen “Part of the List” as a single, personally, since I think even as a slow jam it’s going into incense-and-candles a la Babyface territory, and thus it risks becoming a little too sentimental. Still wish that “So You Can Cry,” the best song Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder never wrote, was a single (1 point). Pill’s song is heavy metal caterwauling as rap. And I should care because (0 points)?

STANDINGS: Signal 24, Pill 24, Calle 21, Ne-Yo 21, Lonely 20

Alfred Soto: This group proves how grunts, pansexualism, vocoders, and T-Pain are universal solvents. The video for “Trap Goin’ Ham” really sold the song by reveling in every ghetto signifier: booze, blunts, forties, and booty. Big booties. Writhing booties in closeup. Booties on hot summer days (5 points). Which is why the title of Ne-Yo’s plaint is the ideal followup and the perfect response: he wants her to remember his booty, in case she assumed he was gay (3 points). Meanwhile Busy Signal reminds him where the action is should he fail (2 points). The rest (Calle 13 1 point, The Lonely Island 0 points) is electric relaxation, in which warm human bodies have no place unless you’re squeezing past Lycra on your way to the club’s bar.


1. Pill, “Trap Goin’ Ham” – 29 points
2. Busy Signal, “Da Style Deh” – 26 points
3. Ne-Yo, “Part of the List” – 24 points
4. Calle 13 ft. Cuci Amador, “Electro Movimiento” – 22 points
5. The Lonely Island ft. T-Pain, “I’m On a Boat” – 20 points

Another close one, then, though in the end it winds up being a fairly comfortable win for Pill, with Busy Signal edging out Ne-Yo for the runner-up spot. Calle 13 and Lonely Island both put in decent showings without ever really threatening to trouble the second-round draw.

The next group, though. Oh boy. That one gets kinda hectic, and it’ll be up this afternoon…

26 Responses to “The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009: Round 1, Group 5”

  1. Excellent results imo, bravo all. In terms of how much I like these songs I’d have ranked them Pill > Ne-Yo > Busy Signal > Calle 13 > awful comedians, but if I’d been voting in this group would probably have given second place to Busy; I think of Year Of The Gentleman and its associated singles as firmly 2008, that’s when Ne-Yo got his plaudits for it and that’s where it should stay. Don’t get Calle 13 at all, it sounds a lot less fun than most reggaeton – Frank OTM. “Trap Goin’ Ham” just gets better and better, and I think Pill’s latest 4075: The Refill mixtape is even more impressive and consistent than 4180: The Prescription.

  2. “Trap Goin’ Ham” is actually everything that’s wrong with the world.

  3. …explain?

  4. Tal said it better than I could. It’s just such a shockingly meh track that wastes the potentially very intriguing menace in its production by trying to be a third-rate xerox of “What You Know” but somehow worse.

  5. If he doesn’t mind, I would love for Frank to explain how a song can’t be bad but being “indie” (which doesn’t make sense to me in this context, actually) is a pejorative ostensibly qualifying it as such. (In their own way, the other songs on this list–with the exception of Ne-Yo–are all “indie,” for that matter. But then I’m not really sure what you mean by “indie.”)

  6. Sorry, that sounds really pissy. The Chicago Bears really do turn me into an asshole.

  7. I loved how Pill actually had a shot of some packets of ham in his video.

  8. I’d go Busy Signal > Lonely Island > Pill > Ne-Yo > Calle 13 (though I still like Calle 13 more than some people here do.)

  9. I like “Trap Goin Ham” but love the video.

  10. But it’s not like the video doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done elsewhere. See Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” and also “Back That Azz Up.”

  11. Actually, Juvenile videos, period.

  12. Well, maybe not all of “Back That Azz Up,” but a lot of Juvenile’s videos generally.

  13. Wouldn’t “Ha” be the standard point of reference? I think the “Trap Goin’ Ham” video is rather artless by comparison, though. The one thing that does stand out to me a lot is the fact that there are controlled substances EVERYWHERE in that video. Not just the big shock ploy of the woman smoking crack at the beginning, but Pill’s fizzy Corona, dudes rolling blunts, the Newport ad in the store window, the older lady proudly displaying her bottle of liquor, a dozen or so different folks clutching cigarettes. I’m not used to seeing such a wide array or frequency in a video. It seems very intentional and in your face.

  14. Yeah Rodney, “Ha” is exactly it. Actually, come to think of it, I now think that “Trap Goin’ Ham” is a lot like “Ha,” but not quite as good.

  15. i think you have Pill and Busy reversed in the final standings. Pill was on 24pts, then alfred soto gave him 5pts, so he should be in first place.

  16. What really stands out to me about the Pill video is how vivid everything is – I’m not a camera or cinematography expert but that thing is beautifully shot.

    “Trap Goin’ Ham” is, like, nothing at all like “What You Know” in terms of mood or performance or perspective or anything.

  17. I’m happy enough with the results here, though I think Ne-Yo would have edged out Busy Signal for me. Well done for putting Lonely Island bottom.

  18. Lex, don’t quibble about someone making a comparison you find odious and inaccurate. You box things together the same way all the time!

  19. Tal, only have a couple of minutes to think about this. “This isn’t bad, but [some defect]” is hardly a strange construction; e.g., “not a bad runner but he fumbles too much,” where the guy would be a better runner if he didn’t fumble. Dif in music is that there are few unmitigatedly bad characteristics, so I could say about one singer, “Her voice isn’t bad but it’s too chilly” and then turn around and praise some other singer for the chill in her voice. In any event, the flavor of Calle 14’s/Cuci Amador’s disconnect here seems indie to me, bohos creating a good freestyle tune but not knowing how to deliver it. (Don’t know much about Calle 14, and “boho” may not be the word I’m looking for, but they sound somewhere in the vicinity of trying to be “progressive” and “experimental.”) If I were to try and think this through further I’d compare this track to another ’80s revamp, María Daniela Y Su Sonido Lasser’s cover of Click’s Mexican Italodisco classic “Duri Duri”; I’d locate María Daniela on the indie or hip end of electro dance, and in this case her distance from Italodisco ends up being a virtue, since it manifests itself as punk brattiness that she infuses enthusiastically into the original’s delight and catchiness without losing any the delight/catchiness; is one of my tracks of the ’00s (just as the original was one of my tracks of the ’80s).

    Nothing else in this round seems remotely “indie” in the social sense (even if some are on independent labels; I have no idea, actually), but “I’m On A Boat” is another example of crossing successfully from a distance (or having your cake and eating it too), but I don’t have time to elaborate.

    Cuci Amador is on my list of artists to explore further, since her voice seems pretty. Haven’t heard anything else by her or Afrobeta, about whom I know nothing except that they qualified for a Wikipedia deletion for reasons I don’t have time to check.

  20. Well, the construct doesn’t bother me, it’s that your description above (in the first paragraph of the comments thread) says more about why the song’s not bad (although I realize this is hardly the best format to express why it’s not bad (one sentence in a paragraph discussing five songs)). I guess my problem is with the fact that I don’t understand what “but it’s indie” says about the song or about the word “indie.” If I understand it correctly, “indie” means “bohos creating a good x tune but not knowing how to deliver it.” So “indie” essentially means the watering down of a genre?

    When I say that these could be “indie,” I guess I mean that they could be listened to by either college-educated or bohemian audiences. In this case, “I’m On a Boat” strikes me as a very standard, albeit a terrific execution of that standard, version of college humor. It’s got a pop culture reference, it features characters placed into a social context into which they’re not typically seen, and it parodies a specific trope in a style of music.

  21. Isn’t defining indie as “college humour” a roundabout way of affirming that indie is a pejorative? College humour is smug and completely sucks. Fucking students!

  22. No, because as Lonely Island plainly shows, indie can be done well. There’s good rap and bad rap, but one doesn’t hear “rap” being thrown around as a negative description, otherwise you’re in danger of sounding like an old, clueless fogey. Yet “indie” produces the exact opposite response.

  23. If I understand it correctly, “indie” means “bohos creating a good x tune but not knowing how to deliver it.” So “indie” essentially means the watering down of a genre?

    Well, one man’s watering down is another man’s synthesis, and the phrase “watering down” is often used to deride pop, and musical evolution is a constant interplay between differentiating and amalgamating, purifying and mongrelizing.

    Bohemians can appreciate just about anything, and people like me are proof of that – if I’m not a bohemian, then I don’t know what “bohemian” means; and when I wrote the phrase “all rendered lame in the context of our appreciation” back in my Why Music Sucks essay, 1987, I meant the first-person plural. Somewhere in those early essays I also wrote that I was afraid that people were mistaking my musical mediocrity for integrity.

    I don’t think SNL/”I’m On A Boat” is particularly bohemian; more like snotty frat humor – though of course it can be rendered lame in bohemian appreciation just like anything else, but bohemian appreciation isn’t that song’s home. College humor is something different. –Not that college humor can’t also render things lame; it just didn’t in “I’m On A Boat.” And bohemian appreciation doesn’t necessarily render everything lame; one reason for my essay was to try to begin to figure out how to change our behavior so as not to render things lame.

    But the reason “indie” gets to be a pejorative (was a pejorative in my mind by ’87, whereas wasn’t in ’77) is that there’s so much bad, recessive, distanced indie music that these all link in my mind; indie = bad, recessive, distanced. Of course the point of my María Daniela reference is to say that none of this is a given. Maybe if I were ghetto rather than bohemian then I would also use “rap”as a pejorative, but I don’t see rap celebrating itself for its failures in the way that indie does, even though there’s a lot of shitty rap. In any event, I’m not going to write an essay in these comments, so “mistakes mediocrity for integrity” is my shortcut explanation for why bad indie turns “indie” into a pejorative for me whereas bad rap doesn’t turn “rap” into a pejorative. (And yes, rap and country and r&b can also have tendencies towards presenting mediocrity as integrity; those tendencies aren’t so central in those genres. But this is not an essay or I’d explore all that too.)

    By the way, if you can convince me I’m mishearing Calle 14, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  24. Whereas you don’t have to convince me that I’m mistyping Calle 14, which = Calle 13.

  25. (Interesting that I caught my mistake immediately this time, but not in my earlier post.)

  26. (I never really recovered from when S Club 7 became S Club 8.)