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2007’s Best Untethered (Unprotected) MP3s

All year long, we’ve been hearing about the death of the LP, the demise of 10-song-at-a-time collections of new material that music consumers have come to expect since the late 1950s. But although it’s too soon to start shoveling dirt on the coffin yet, artists once tethered to an annual release schedule are slowly wandering away from the template. To hasten this demise, L.A. Weekly offers some of the most intriguing songs of the year, escaped from the tyranny of the full-length. We want songs, and we want to play them over and over again. What follows are some that you should track down pronto.

Axel Willner, a.k.a. the Field, transformed a doo-wop sample. (Click to enlarge)

Lil’ Mama: “What you know about me? What you know?” (Click to enlarge)

“From Here We Go Sublime,” The Field (Kompakt Records)

Think of “From Here We Go Sublime,” the title track from Swedish techno producer Axel Willner’s debut full-length, as the Field, as the antithesis of the anthem. There are no words that will inevitably transform into annoying catch phrases, no beat to beckon the world to dance. The piece is built around the Flamingos’ 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a doo-wop snippet that sounds beamed from a dust-encrusted 45 hidden underneath piles of old prom dresses. The track’s ambient intro leads to the loop, which Willner speeds up, slows down and otherwise distorts. In the club, “From Here We Go Sublime” is the perfect bridge, a blissed-out interlude providing a breather between peak-hour crescendos. At least that’s how it functioned when the Field performed at Santa Monica’s Mor Bar last summer. At home, through your headphones, you’ll be forced to play and replay the track, peeling apart the layers and wondering why it couldn’t be just a little longer. Sometimes, four minutes and 10 seconds isn’t enough time to sink into the sublime.

–Liz Ohanesian

“Someone Great,” LCD Soundsystem (DFA Records)

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has made a career out of crafting songs that reveal a life much cooler than yours: Daft Punk plays at his house, he was at the first Can show in Cologne, etc. What Mr. DFA hadn’t revealed thus far was his sensitive side. Turns out it’s his best feature. “Someone Great” strips away the superficial storytelling and replaces frenetic knife-stab guitars with midtempo, throbbing ambient blips. Beginning with a quietly undulating synth-wave, the track gains its footing as hushed, reverb-soaked robot patter, a soft acid bass line and staccato synth programming join the fray. Murphy uses his indoor voice to actually sing this tune, an intimate and personal reflection on the loss of a lover or friend or relative... I’m not entirely sure what it’s about, but it doesn’t really matter. Performed and programmed by Murphy, “Someone Great” may inspire you to shelve your Daft Punk records forever. The song provides an unexpected moment of electronic pathos; once you find sad music like this to dance to, happy vocoder electro-pop feels like such a drag.

–Jonah Flicker

“Lip Gloss,” Lil' Mama (Jive Records)

This was the jam of everyone’s summertime. You hate? I don’t, even if its rhymes stink. Know why? Its pop music stuck in my head. The beat, the hook go well with a true tale: lip gloss a drag but when 16, something to make work as talisman. YouTube, the site, has the video: Mam’s mom, outside, gives girl wisdom. To Mam, who’s shy, glossed up dances down the hall, quite changed. She sings to the cool kids, “What you know ’bout me? What you know?” With shield, she speaks and boys all dance or fall in line. Of course, not lips but for her fierce young brain. She’s fun, writes songs and shares her wisdom. What more, I mean, she’s a teen? Oh yeah, she proves she can be a friendly foe: Like B (but modestly), she wants to “upgrade ya” in a way obtainable, not with a silk-lined blazer. Makeup, that’s it, that truly is so third wave! They say, pleasure’s not superfluous, it is main. Lip gloss, first step, and then we’ll end war. Like pop, lip gloss can potentially be something more. Or not.

–Daphne Carr

“Valerie,” Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse (RCA Records)

Listen to Amy Winehouse’s fine debut CD, Frank, and you hear a young woman flitting capably but self-consciously from influence to influence (Sarah Vaughan, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill), haphazardly trying on other women’s styles in winning fashion. By this year’s girl-group/vintage R&B homage “Back to Black,” she’s clearly coming into her own (as songwriter as well as singer), and the vision not only of what she currently is but of what she might yet become is mesmerizing. It’s on Mark Ronson’s “Valerie,” though, that Winehouse finally synthesizes all incoming streams and really makes them her own. Ronson orchestrates a vaguely Motown-ish bass line and some vintage soul-man horns into a groove that completely overhauls the original Zutons version of the song, creating a comfort zone for the troubled Ms. Winehouse to both nod heavily toward and yet transcend the templates she’s drawn on before. The debate sparked about how much white skin has greased her path to success is still a valid one; the controversies around her drug use and increasingly outta control antics create a familiar (if not tired) cliffhanger to her future. Those peripheral issues resonate so much because, as shown on “Valerie,” Winehouse’s talent is absolutely undeniable.

–Ernest Hardy

“Poisenville Kids No Wins/Reprise (This Must Be Our Time),” El-P (Def Jux Records)

Poisenville exists in dual dimensions. El-P’s beat is the sound of a mind bleeding, a thundering seven-minute soulfuck full of Star Wars synths and Orwellian alarms, drums big as boulders booming like bombs from a telescreen. An industrial post-rap stomp that conjures visions of bent dystopias ruled by aged bad actors, full of droning machines and radiation, with people feasting on tomatoes the size of skulls, wearing ill-fitting silver suits like they just stepped off a Stanley Kubrick set. Simultaneously, it’s a hazy drugged dispatch from that valley between dawn and night, the story of a lonely train car home, vomited out onto blocks of Brooklyn brownstones and bodegas, nasal drip tearing its way down our narrator’s throat. Slanting against a sleeping storefront, he pauses for one last cigarette, letting the wispy Newport drags dissolve into the weak maroon sun, contemplating that fragile membrane that links light and darkness, sanity and madness, the desire to fight versus the wisdom to flee. The world is awry, the pack is empty, and all he can do is laugh.

–Jeff Weiss

“Paper Planes,” M.I.A. (Universal Records)

The grand façade of Sri Lankan–way-of-London hip-hop star M.I.A. is the postulation that she actually knows what she’s talking about. This year, she asserted in Pitchfork that she doesn’t really care about what she’s talking about (Liberia, terrorism, Diplo). Then the press accused her of not caring, and she got mad and accused them of thinking she doesn’t care because she’s a woman. Or brown-skinned. Or a brown-skinned woman. Whatever. Her 2007 album Kala harbors one of the most satisfying and fun tracks of 2007. “Paper Planes” has shotgun blasts mixed with cash-register $ka-chings$ and a sample of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” all held together by her alluring vocals and airy danceable beats. It’s hilarious. I feel instantaneously happy and cool when I put this song on. Maybe that’s why it’s so disappointing to learn of her convoluted campaigning and nationalistic muckraking. Oh, well. She’s not the first pop star to crow about capitalism while flashing gold-plated teeth. You can check the music video for “Paper Planes” on Spike TV’s ifilm.com. It’s right after the 20-second Sidekick commercial.

–Rena Kosnett“He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” Grizzly Bear (Warp Records)

A complicated song made more so in 2007 by history and clever gays who insist on gender-fucking even such tender-button issues as domestic violence, Grizzly Bear’s cover of the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” dredges up a notorious pop song from the dustbin and revisits it, knowing that (a) Phil Spector, the song’s original producer, has been accused of murder in his home and (b) a man is hitting a man in this version, which messes with the dynamic. The reflex is to decry the song, then dismiss it. But you can’t, because it conveys an ugly truth. Grizzly Bear’s version begins with a soft, single guitar melody as singer Edward Droste confesses in weary falsetto: “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss/He hit me, but it did not hurt me.” The guitar line is simple, stays out of the way of the lyrics. But the tension builds: “He hit me and I knew he loved me/’Cause if he didn’t care for me/I could have never made him mad/He hit me and I was glad.” With that, the dam breaks, a full band grabs the music and shakes it, manifesting the confusion with emotion that sounds both outraged and defiant. In the Crystals’ original, singer Barbara Altson interprets the lyrics matter-of-factly, not the least bit shocked by what she’s saying. Droste, however, sounds like his heart’s break­ing, sounds trapped by a string of de­cisions, sounds madly, awfully... in love.

–Randall Roberts

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” Vampire Weekend (self-released)

Young Caucasians such as Dylan and the Stones have long borrowed from African-American music, emphasis on American: folk of miscegenated origins; blues from the Mississippi Delta; hip-hop from the Bronx. At a time when the Zeitgeist indicates America is falling — like ancient Rome, like the British Empire — it’s no surprise that young imaginations would be fired by sources farther afield. This song encapsulates the meme. Cape Cod is a WASP vacation spot. Kwassa refers to an ’80s dance from Congo. True to billing, this song synthesizes white pop and “real” African rhythm. A hooky guitar figure brings to mind the Strokes on safari. Bright synthetic keyboards dance to a pitter-pat beat. Singer Ezra Koenig’s pure tone and careful phrasing recall Paul Simon on Graceland. With a few details, his lyrics paint a portrait of a teen on vacation in an era when American culture no longer dominates: “As a young girl/Louis Vuitton/with your mother/on a sandy lawn/as a sophomore/with reggaeton.” Vampire Weekend will release their debut album in 2008, but with this one song, they’ve perfected an Afro-preppie style that could supplant visions of Snoop Dogg decked out in Tommy Hilfiger.

–Alec Hanley Bemis

“Clarion Music Hall,” the High Llamas (Drag City)

From the immorally under-looked Can Cladders album, this song hovers high above that most wickedly overused critics’ term the “minisymphony.” You’ve maybe heard about Llamas leader Sean O’Hagan’s fetish for Brian Wilson’s “modular” approach to constructing songs, the shorthand version of which is that it’s sort of painting with sound by juxtaposing the instrumentation and gestural flourishes of disparate musical genres. O’Hagan (who has been providing inventive arrangements of late for Sondre Lerche and Super Furry Animals) has long departed from any obvious pastiching in his songwriting, as the deceptively casual “Clarion Music Hall” makes quite unclear. On the surface, it’s an easygoing piano & guitar stroll down some golden-sunshiny lane amid the seemingly benevolent bustle of late-afternoon city life. A sweet small string section that alternates between Euro chamber-style and tougher Philly soul interpolates with harps, mallet instruments, unobtrusive brushing drums and sweet-soul “da da da”s from a girly chorus, and then there’s this utterly suave Wes Montgomery guitar ornament that reiterates on select returns of the chorus. “Come to the Clarion Music Hall — la la la la la la...” The easy allure of such sweet strings is an obvious charm; the song, however, is so typically High Llamasian in its surface niceness that one could (and perhaps should) easily overlook the extraordinarily intricate patchwork of musical schemes woven together, and the multitude of scenes and events that have occurred in just over four minutes. Instant, long-lasting relief, with lingering happy thoughts.

–John Payne

“D.A.N.C.E.,” Justice (Vice/Downtown Records)

As someone who thought that French Touch was a truck-stop condom, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on when Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” ambushed me from the airwaves late last summer (’07’s only occasion when my turning up the radio was a reflex action). It was weeks before I learned that Justice is a pair of Parisian DJs in the mold of — some would say the shadow of — Daft Punk. By that point, I wouldn’t have cared if Dick Cheney and the Geico gecko had created the thing: All that mattered was that song. While the use of kiddie choirs in pop music normally triggers projectile vomiting (P.O.D.’s “Youth of the Nation” still leaves me queasy), “D.A.N.C.E.” ’s Jackson 5 hook never gets old, perhaps ’cos it so marvelously offsets an insanely wiggly, Bootsy-vs.-Atari mandroid bass line. Cavernous, arena-ready kick ’n’ snare, ABC-worthy orchestral key stabs and faux-horn flurries, and cheeky Chic-y guitar tendrils complete a track oozing enough decadent joy to light a small city. As with many significant songs, I recall exactly where I was when I first heard it: driving under the 101 on Franklin in Hollywood. Even in that suicidally dour spot, “D.A.N.C.E.” immediately took me somewhere else: anywhere I chose.

–Paul Rogers


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