Best Radio Single of the Year: Disparate Youth by Santigold

Title: Disparate Youth
Artist: Santigold
Album: Master of My Make-Believe

On days where I have the bravery to turn on the radio at all in my car, I always turn it to 94.7, KNRK, Portland’s alternative-rock station. If alternative-rock doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it’s been defunct for more than a decade, gone out of fashion and replaced in part by Indie Rock. If you think I listen to it out of a strong sense of 90s nostalgia, think again. So many of the bands they play are ones I hated in the 90s and have only now learned to appreciate–to a degree. The reason why I tune in to 94.7 is more defensive than anything else–it’s the only station on the FM broadband where I feel safe from the throaty caterwauling of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and their ilk, artists whose music is so blandly innocuous it can be fit into the lineup of just about any radio station’s lineup without sticking out.

Then, something peculiar happened one day. Were I more inclined to religiosity, I’d call it a minor miracle. Not only did I hear a new song on KNRK, but it was a new song I had actually liked! Normally, if what I’m looking for is new and exciting music, the last place I turn is the radio, yet here was a song that pulsated with life and was intensely original throughout. It wasn’t ditzy or coquettish like so much of today’s music, yet it contained all of the hooks and attitude I could possibly ask for from pop. That song was Disparate Youth, and the artist, one of my new favs, was Santigold.

Disparate Youth has something going for it that so many singles lack: originality. It isn’t “retro,” nor is it an obvious throwback to popular songs of the past, and in that sense it is so unlike Adele’s hugely-overplayed hit Rolling in The Deep, a song that’s basically a 70s R & B ballad reproduced in a more expensive studio. Listening to Adele, I can’t help but wish I was listening to someone better like Gladys Knight or Mavis Staples. Listening to Santigold, I’m well aware what I’m hearing is an artist who has just reached her tipping point.

True, Santigold hasn’t created a new element from the fire like a musical alchemist. Rather, what she’s done in Disparate Youth is essentially combine seemingly disparate elements from different genres to create what can be best described as a musical collage. Simply listen to a verse or two and ask yourself how many influences you can hear vying for space. At first, it may sound like just another club anthem, but if you really listen to it and analyze the structure, you’ll recognize that underneath the spastically galloping drumbeat the song bears much more in common with reggae. Notice, for example, the reverb-heavy chords played ska-styled throughout, and the chorus itself sounds like it could have just as easily come from Peter Tosh. However, the song refuses to be pinned down as reggae, and does so by employing the abrasive guitar playing by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Nick Zinner. Further in the background, as if to offset the rock influence, there’s a simply blissed-out synthesizer that sounds lifted from the Drive soundtrack.

Despite how excellent the background music itself is, what really makes Disparate Youth the best single of the year is Santigold herself. So much of her lyrics here are perfectly relevant to our times. Sure, they can be read as possible anthems for the Occupy movement or even the rebellion in Egypt, but beyond that the lyrics can arouse some sympathy from every unhappy young person. It’s an optimistic song though–a call to action. Look at the opening couplet “Don’t look ahead there’s stormy weather,/ another roadblock in our way.” If that sounds bleak, just wait for the brazen chorus to set everything right. Almost without sentiment, Santigold sings more like she’s issuing a decree than pleading when she says “Ooh-ahh, Ooh-ahh,/ we know that we want more,/ ooh-ahh, ooh-ahh,/ a life worth fighting for…”

Disparate Youth then stands out as the perfect antidote to the tongue-in-cheek pessimism of TV on the Radio’s song Red Dress, where one of the lyrics states “…but I’m scared to death I’m living a life not worth fighting for…” Santigold takes this lachrymose lyric and reframes it into a perfect note of protest. How better to express discontent than by saying it’d be nice to have a life worth fighting for?

One thing is clear: Santigold has helped make pop music once again worth caring about.

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What’s the best radio single of the year in your opinion?

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