For all the dizzy exuberance of songs about gold diggers and candy shops, pop music was in an unusually reflective mood during 2005. In fact, songwriters such as Neil Young and Mary Gauthier gave us some of the smartest and most moving musical commentaries in ages.
Given the years of debate over such issues as the Iraq war, "my God is better than your God" and gay rights, an outpouring of thoughtful, soul-searching topical songs is long overdue.
The best of them are spotlighted in Calendar's annual New Year's Eve countdown of the year's 10 most memorable singles or individual album tracks.
Topping the list is Young's "When God Made Me," a true sermon for these times and a song in the idealistic, brotherhood spirit of John Lennon's "Imagine."
The opening lines:
\o7Was he thinkin' about my country
Or the color of my skin?
Was he thinkin' about my religion
And the way I worshiped him?
Did he create just me in his image
Or every living thing?
When God made me.
\f7But not all the reflection was in a social context. Jack White and Fiona Apple spoke in similarly absorbing tunes about finding the strength to overcome doubts and despair -- rallying cries that are helpful in any age.
However different in style and ambition, the recordings on this year-end Top 10 list share an individuality and vision that separate them from the passing parade of hollow, manufactured pop.
Before the countdown, here are some honorable mention choices.
Amerie's "1 Thing" (Columbia). Purely entertainment, this witty R&B-pop single reflects marvelously on the chaotic nature of romantic infatuation by pitting the young singer's hyperactive vocal against an insistent, percussive beat.
LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" (DFA/Capitol). Electronica may have failed as an MTV movement, but the genre is still filled with imagination and daring, and it sometimes delivers a work with enough pop sensibilities for everyone to embrace. This is as sharp as prime Talking Heads and as goofy as a Daffy Duck cartoon.
Coldplay's "Til Kingdom Come" (Capitol). Coldplay's beautiful "Fix You" is a pledge of devotion, but this bonus track on the "X&Y" album is an even more intimate statement that may be played at weddings for years. Chris Martin wrote it with Johnny Cash in mind as the singer.
Damian Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock" (Tuff Gong). Maybe just the most liberating reggae recording by a Marley who's not named Bob, "Jamrock" looks at poverty and crime in Jamaica with an intensity that reminds you why Damian's father was such an influence on the Clash and other political rockers.
Now, the New Year's Eve countdown:
10. Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God" (Team Love). Here's something guaranteed to raise your pulse rate, whatever your feelings about our president. The record, very much anti-Bush, isn't so much reflective as angry -- a link with the energy and conviction of so much of the rock 'n' roll commentary of the '60s. Like his words, Conor Oberst's vocal is filled with fury and contempt, and in his rage he sometimes sacrifices his usual, graceful craft for rowdy assault. It's a record that demands reaction -- an attack also on the timid passivity of pop music in recent years.
\o7When the\f7\o7 p\f7\o7resident talks to God
Are the conversations brief or long?
Does he ask to rape our women's rights
And send poor farm kids off to die?
Does God suggest an oil hike
When the president talks to God?
\f7 9. 50 Cent's "Just a Lil Bit" (Interscope/Aftermath/Shady). 50 Cent's resume may be all about gunshots and hard times, but the main reason he sells millions of records is his ability to make pop as accessible as Dr. Dre's and as teasingly naughty as the best of Madonna's.
8. Fiona Apple's "Waltz (Better Than Fine)" (Epic/Clean Slate). There's an almost irresistible feel-good spirit to this refreshing tale of self-affirmation, served up in a pop-cabaret style reminiscent of the rich sophistication of French chanteuse Edith Piaf (special credit to producer Jon Brion and orchestral arranger Patrick Warren). The reminder that we're all OK is especially useful if you're feeling out of step on New Year's Eve.
\o7If you don't have a song to sing
You know how to get along humming
If you don't have a date
\f77. Gretchen Wilson's "I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today" (Epic). Who ever figured that the former Illinois bartender who rode the novelty "Redneck Woman" to country stardom last year would come back with a sensitive song that ranks among the great country ballads? It's the story of a woman whose heart has been broken (possibly by someone's infidelity) and who knows she'll eventually get over it. But just not today.
6. Franz Ferdinand's "Do You Want To?" (Domino/Epic). The opening seconds of this spectacular single combine the '60s zest of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and it keeps coming at you with witty lines about this outwardly cocky guy's attempt to land the girl of his dreams.