Sweat is a central conundrum of summer: One spends the day trying to avoid it and the night actively searching it out. The Berliner Ellen Allien is the sound of that nighttime mission accomplished. Allien has built a sizable cult following—Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, for one, pledges allegiance—by making glitchy, details-oriented techno suitable for both study and play. Allien’s latest album forfeits the cheery day and stays out till dawn contemplating the nurturing powers of bass. The sinister lurch and rat-a-tat high-hats of “Your Body Is My Body” slowly evolve into something sweet and melodic, while the opening pings of “Naked Rain” delightfully Doppler back and forth before giving way to Kraftwerk-styled synths. The bobbing bass line of “Ghost Train” offers a moment of reprieve, only to be snatched away by the tinny, transcendent stomp of “Cloudy City.” You’re not getting out of this one dry.
Amerie“1 Thing” (Sony, 2005) Click here to listen to “1 Thing.”
One of the definitive singles of 2005 never would have happened had it not been for some creative bootlegging. When Amerie’s label balked at the ready-for-liftoff cacophony of “1 Thing,” she and producer Rich Harrison leaked it on the Internet and to DJs. “1 Thing” sounds like too many ideas at once. It spills open with off-balance, mid-solo go-go drums and strident guitar stabs—a junkyard din that the workmanlike Amerie sings against. Thanks to this odd pairing, the single became a social epidemic. And, thanks to this success, Amerie is at the center of more “gray”-market activity. Like Missy and Jay-Z before her, her vocals have become the weapon of choice for remixers. The best? A guy named Siik, who brilliantly misreads the script and blends Amerie’s bright, upstream swim with a wistful beat from Japan’s Nujabes. (Hint: Google.)
Who are you kidding—that heat is dreadful. Leslie Feist’s lovely debut album was made for moping about, admiring a quiet summer day from behind a window. (This is saying a lot, considering she once toured under the name Bitch Lap-Lap and rapped—in bad Spanish, no less—with a sock puppet.) The Canadian singer’s latest is a charming, stripped-down collection of strums, hisses, and sambas that both celebrates and dreads the act of losing oneself to love. The gorgeous “Gatekeeper” looks forward to the possibilities of summertime—of “making lover and making their dinner”—but fears the onset of winter, while her gently thumping cover of the Bee Gees’ “Inside and Out” captures the original’s mingling of ecstasy and insanity. At the center of each song is Feist, whose voice is wispy enough to be drowned out by the sound of air conditioning.
Memphis Bleek featuring Jay-Z“Dear Summer” (Roc-A-Fella, 2005) Click here to listen to “Dear Summer.”
Few artists understand the synergistic possibilities of summer like Jay-Z. In the Logan’s Run-like world of hip-hop, the veteran rapper boasts a startling string of summer anthems dating back to the Clinton years—that’s about 100 in human years. Taking yet another break from “retirement,” Jay’s ode to his own hit-making abilities appears on the latest disc of his perennial protégé Memphis Bleek. (Oddly, Bleek does not appear on the song.) “Dear Summer, I know you gon’ miss me/ For we been together like Nike Airs and crisp tees,” Jay reminisces over a loping, gently wafting beat by Just Blaze. Though nobody believes he will stay retired, he explains that his new life isn’t too bad—”I got a brand new bitch: corporate America/ She showin’ me a lot of action right now,” he smirks, adding another notch to his belt.
Oxford Collapse“Last American Virgin” (Kanine, 2005) Click here to listen to “Last American Virgin.”
This fantastic bit of ramshackle pop from Brooklyn’s Oxford Collapse evokes a perfect summer setting (the liminal space of the garage) to discuss a perfect summer subject (virginity). Known for their raucous live shows, the trio’s second album, A Good Ground, whittles their perpetually amateur-sounding approach down to a fierce chug. The standout track, “Last American Virgin,” opens with plodding jangles and glacial drumming before the trio kicks into a group sputter that threatens to come undone at any moment. The fray is powered by the sound of three musicians going solo at the same time: Mike Pace splays over the top with his dehydrated yawps and string-snapping strums; Adam Rizer’s bass jogs up and down the sonic pile like a dozen New Order songs played at the wrong speed; and Dan Fetherston steadies it all with his locomotive drumming before showing off with the cowbell.
R. Kelly In the Kitchen (Jive, 2005) Click here to listen to “Trapped in the Closet.”
Never has a man fumbled to put his cell phone on “vibrate” with as much bravado as R. Kelly. The troubled Chicago singer’s five-part single insures that the term “cinematic” will no longer be carelessly unfurled whenever a musician offers something loosely resembling narrative. “Trapped in the Closet” features more than 17 minutes of percolator drips, airy piano, orchestral crescendos, and gasping cliffhangers and recounts an utterly bizarre morning in the life of a gun-toting lothario who wakes up next to a woman he barely knows. The story is delivered with a pulpy meticulousness that confirms Kelly as both brilliant and crazy. As the woman’s husband arrives home, Kelly’s character hides in the closet, only to be betrayed by his chirping phone. It might sound like a fairly run-of-the-mill bit of adultery, but like the song’s increasingly maverick creator, you really have no idea how this one is going to end.
Architecture in Helsinki“Do the Whirlwind” (Bar/None, 2005) Click here to listen to “Do the Whirlwind.”
Imagine a tidy, law-abiding dance floor where everyone has room enough to flail about to their heart’s content. This is the sound of Architecture in Helsinki, a twee Australian pop octet that commands you to execute “the whirlwind.” The well-named dance move doesn’t currently exist—if it did, it would no doubt be cute—but the song offers much to speculate about. Architecture’s breezy, kitchen-sink approach is eclectic but not ostentatious. The rhythm section surges politely, alternating between hand claps, finger snaps, cowbells, and congas; the melody comfortably mingles sitars and trumpets with Human League-styled synths. Sandwiched somewhere in the middle, a round robin of singers take turns daring you to resist the awesome centripetal force of their impossible, imaginary dance.
Gwen Stefani“Hollaback Girl (Diplo’s Hollatronix remix)” (Interscope, 2005) Click here to listen to “Hollaback Girl (Diplo’s Hollatronix remix).”
“Hollaback Girl” is one of the most inscrutable pop hits of recent memory, as well as a rousing renewal of a quasi-Girl Power theme—just because you call doesn’t mean I have to respond. Here, the No Doubt singer entrusts her solo hit to rising DJ and producer Diplo, a nerd-done-good whose globe-trotting mix CDs and compositions have earned him a fervent following. Diplo trades the original version’s acoustic lilts and bleacher stomps for the stuttering, speed-fix drums of Baltimore’s 21-and-over house scene. (It’s easy to identify a Baltimore house tune, since practically every single one—including this remix—samples Gaz’s minor 1978 disco hit, “Sing Sing.”) With its breakneck pace, chattering typewriters, and intermittent sci-fi zaps, Diplo’s makeover accents Stefani’s playfully elastic approach to singing, particularly when she indulges in her own call-and-response and spells her praise of the beat: “This shit is B-A-N-A-N-A-S!”