Dhee's 'Enjoy Enjaami' featuring Arivu has clocked 88 million YouTube views. Its lyrics have been picked apart from various angles and the hypnotic beat has been grooved to endlessly. It must have helped that the song wasn't written for a film as it would have limited the range of musical and lyrical ideas. 'Enjoy Enjaami' springs from the fledgling Tamil indie music scene which produces such gems while still having a hangover of film music.
Mainstream film music has defined what's catchy and it might be a while before the indie music scene in Tamil is truly independent of the sensibility of music in our films. Unlike film music, independent music is diverse. So, any list is bound to be personal and specific, revealing more about the writer than the songs.
But that's the point. By taking stars out of the equation, it gives artists the freedom to express themselves creatively. It also gives listeners a chance to seek out niche music and build a musical canon that is individual to them. The following is a very personal list of the best non-film Tamil music:
15. Bodhai Neeye — Ramya Raj
'Bodhai Neeye' has an Arab Pop vibe. It has the typical tripping rhythm, a refrain that's faintly melancholic, and it sounds quintessentially pop.
14. Kanaa — Nucleya ft. 2jaym & Sublahshini
Kanaa starts off with a seemingly ordinary melody and lyrics in English (by 2jaym). We hear a similar melody in Sublahshini's voice, but she sings in Tamil, and it sounds completely different. The Tamil version has a lilt because of its quicker rhythms which Sublahshini stays at unexpected points by delaying a note until you begin to think it won't ever come.
After we've been introduced to the musical themes, there's a bit which sounds like it was composed by a restless 8-bit robot killing time after being trapped in an abandoned arcade machine. If you're not careful, it will set up an addictive low-key loop in your head.
13. Aigiri Nandini — Brodha V
Brodha V is something of an ironic take on American rapper MC Yogi who fused rap and chanting in albums like 'Pilgrimage' and 'Elephant Power'. Brodha V doesn't seem interested in the religious aspect (especially if you check the music video). He's interested in the beats of Sanskrit. His lyrics in English sound crisp like the ones in Sanskrit, but he achieves this by pushing the limits of what makes sense.
But that's the point. You don't need to understand a word of Sanskrit to appeciate it's rhythm, just as you don't need to (and won't) understand what Brodha V means in order to enjoy the beat of these lines of rap:
We used to live with villains and often killers, plus sinners
We never oblivious about god the illest
Far from eras
We high five fellas
12. Netru Indru Naalai — Pravin Mani ft. Sathya Prakash
The song reboots the Tamil thathuva paadal by telling it from god's point of view. Think of it as a homage to 'Kandhathai Sollugiren' (MS Viswanathan in Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal). The music is as unstructured as the lyrics (Alpha Something) which are cynical, introspective, and free-flowing. When Sathya Prakash sings the refrain "aadaadhey (stay still)" you hear a beat that shuffles as if to rebel.
11. Net ah Thorandha — Hiphop Tamizha
'Hiphop Tamizha' Adhi, as the lyrics go, is tired of calling himself a Tamizhan because our identities are only putting up walls between us. He just wants to be a manidhan (human). At many places, Hiphop Tamizha turn a phrase with their typical yeah-I-just-said-that style:
Kadavul manidhanai azhithaal, kadavulai yaar padaikka? (if god destroys man, who will create god?)
Kurangilirundhu vanthathaale elorum vandheri dhaan (we're all immigrants because we're all from monkeys)
10. Baby Oh Baby — Ben Human
Composer Achu Rajamani resurrects the Yuvan Shankar Raja of Pudhukottaiyilirundhu Saravanan, April Maadhathil, and Arinthum Ariyamalum. Ben Human sounds a bit like Yuvan too, especially when he goes "oh pappaa…" in the chorus and your brain can't stop racking through his discography to find the spiritual ancestor of that musical phrase.
'Baby Oh Baby' swaggers like 'Baby Baby' from Pudhukottaiyilirundhu Saravanan, especially around the bit that goes 'nee kettadhai ellam tharuven, naane undhan mama'. That doesn't mean that the song is derivative. It's just that Achu Rajamani uses all the great YSR bits from the 2000s to create a superb pop rock sound.
9. Asku Maro — Dharan Kumar ft. K. Sivaangi
This is Yuvan's 'Dhol Bhaje' (Deepavali) on steroids. Almost every line is a hook. The video is more fun than the song, though. Dharan Kumar and Sivangi are complicit in the oldest Tamil film trope to impress a girl, from Adutha Veettu Penn to Ullathai Allitha: pretending you can sing by asking a friend-in-hiding to sing for you. But there's a fun twist in the end.
8. Unakkaaga Naan Irupen – Leon James
For those who were pining for another 'Un Kaadhal Irundhal Podhum' from Kavalai Vendaam, Leon James answers with 'Unakkaaga Naan Irupen'. It's a song about a breakup and wanting the other person back, but the sounds in the song don't feel those emotions. They don't leave a comfortable, harmonic middle, which makes it the kind of song you're looping in your head all the time, but you might not remember it as an especially favorite one after a year. It's all about the feel with Leon James.
7. Roar — ADK
ADK is a rapper but he sounds like a percussionist with a tongue for drumstick when he raps. He has a way of creating hard 'ra', 'tha', and 'pa' sounds without making them louder. This gives him the ability to emphasize those sounds in words. It creates an impression that we're hearing a second beat, over and above the song's.
When he sings 'vandhu munnaala nillunga da, vandhu pesithaan paarunga da' he is in sync with the rhythm. But near the end, he doubles the speed of his rap—a trippier beat created by words layered on top of a steadier beat.
6. Idli Chutney – Sean Roldan
The Tanglish lines in 'Idli Chutney' by Sean Roldan are either clever or crackpot, depending on whether you're sober. Deep ideas are expressed through inane metaphors. You get a bit worried when you hear 'without violence, there is no peace-u' because that's a problematic idea. But you sigh with relief when you hear later: 'without black-u, there is no white-u.' The lyrics don't really mean anything. But the song is insanely catchy and, directly quoting Sean Roldan from the song, "that is reality, please accept with dignity."
5. Nee Podhumey — Shakthisree Gopalan ft. Akshay Yesodharan
Like in Jason Mraz's Lucky (ft. Colbie Cailat), the two voices in 'Nee Podhumey' sometimes sound like a single one with a crack in it. The voices weave into and out of each other and into and out of the guitars. It's a quiet song that doesn't seek your attention. In fact, it feels like we inadvertently stepped in on a whispery conversation between two people but cannot leave out of fear of making a noise.
4. Neeye Charanam – Ghibran
'Neeye Charanam' has a rhythmic progression that nimbly reacts to the lyrics (Soundararajan K). The beat is steady when the lyrics talk about the start of a boy liking a girl. It shuffles and trips to mimic the boy's anxiety when he sings "uruguren unnaale (I melt because of you)" before easing into a slow and regular beat with the chorus "charanam charanam". Musically, you get the sense of refuge that the lines are talking about.
3. Meendum Pirandheno — Sean Roldan ft. Lalitha Sudha
'Meendum Pirandheno' begins and ends like a typical Carnatic fusion song. It's neither experimental nor does it have new musical ideas. In fact, it sounds a bit like the Carnatic fusion romantic song that began with 'Ennavale' (Kaadhalan). But Sean Roldan gets it absolutely right—from the full-throated singing style and indulging in aalaapanais and gamakas without fearing that they're not accessible.
So, what we get is a song that is a variant of the standard fusion song, but the emphasis is more on creating a rich and accessible melodic experience, and less on experiments fusing genres.
2. Kaathadi — Anand Kashinath ft. Sublahshini
If Anirudh's 'Don'u Donu'u Don'u' (Maari) had a few too many drinks and stumbled around aimlessly you would get 'Kaathadi.' Sublahshini's voice sounds delightfully sticky. She seems to hold on to notes just a smidge longer than you'd expect or she delays the next one—it feels like dripping paint. So, though she is moving from note to note, you also feel a bit like you're hearing a slowed down version of what she originally sang. She makes lines like "nee mokka scene potta kooda irukku massahvey" work, and reminds you of Andrea Jeremiah's rendition of 'Thediyae Thediyae' from Va Quarter Cutting.
1. Kalla Mouni — Arivu x ofRo
In 'Kalla Mouni' the lyrics (written by Arivu and ofRo) really exploit their independence from films. A superbly ironic song with lines like 'cutoutukku andaa paala kottu thambi, next round oru kuthu paattu undu thambi.' The anger in the lines never explodes, it implodes into brutally ironic lines that talk about everyday hypocrisy and shallow activism. Almost every line means the opposite of what it says.
The song isn't sarcastic; sarcasm implies judgement. There's no mocking even, but the faux glee in the lyrics that cajole us to continue in our lumpen ways makes one unbearably conscious of it through its absence.