It’s a lament for the piling up of years; it’s a poem for those of us who fear our own ordinary lives; it’s a lyrical confrontation between ourselves, age, responsibility, loss and adulthood. “So I wait in line, I’m a modern man/ And the people behind me, they can’t understand,” sings Win Butler. Your ears perk up here and you cock you head. Bucking a 4/4 time signature, there’s a recurring fifth beat to accommodate the word “modern” in the stanzas. This rightly placed stutter of time suggests both a hesitancy and a pushing ahead. These are the moments, we imagine, in which he’s inching forward in line with the smallest of steps, towards seeing, meeting, becoming the Modern Man.
“Modern Man” is gorgeously somber, gentle in its straightforwardness. A line like, “Oh I had a dream I was dreaming/ And I feel I’m losing the feeling” shoots an arrow right into the tender place, and we’re left with no sunny prescription for transcendence. And yet there is some solace in recognition where coming-of-age requires a coming-to-terms. Understated and uncluttered, “Modern Man” is the thematic linchpin of The Suburbs, a solipsistic melody that, in giving words to the weight of the world, feels something like a soft kiss on the forehead. – Stacey Pavlick
If inter-dimensional beings were to bump and grind on a cosmic dance floor, “Do the Astral Plane” would most likely be their song of choice. The hipster raver – situated conveniently in the heart of Flying Lotus’ epic Cosmogramma – begins with an unlikely maelstrom of noir-inspired string arrangements and scat singing more apt for a jazz concert than a party. When the heavy beat kicks in, we know FlyLo means business. Additional synths buzz, beep and sparkle as intriguing ornaments, but the bump master employs the help of live musicians to sustain the track into a prolonged climax, building slowly upon a somber string section that flutters ethereally in the foreground and horns that boost the song’s adrenaline level. Other synth loops pump onward and endlessly like a machine – repetitive, yes – but that’s why “Do the Astral Plane” succeeds. It’s a glorious moment that spans time in the same fashion the distorted mindwarp Cosmogramma throws us into.
Like the rest of FlyLo’s music, words aren’t necessary; the vibe does all the talking. This is electronica with heart and soul and a heaping dose of space age profundity, a mix of elements that rarely collide so effectively. Highly recommended for revelry, reflection or meditation. – Jory Spadea
If there was one visible trend in 2010 hip-hop, it was a return to an honest visceral energy. From Odd Future to Lil B to Waka Flocka Flame, this year’s major movements were characterized by an unfiltered and unpredictable honesty. All, that is, except for New York’s Das Racist. While their contemporaries found a strong suit in being as genuine and exposed to their listeners as possible, Das Racist went in the opposite route, shielding themselves with layers-upon-layers of cynical irony to the point of complete detachment. On “All Tan Everything,” they walk the line between Smart-Dumb lyrics and Dumb-Smart lyrics with the swagger of a mechanical pencil.
With lyrics like “All brown skin, young melanin/ Melle Mel melding malleable m-metal shit/ All tan man, Mantan Moreland/ Demand more land,” they reveal an understanding of numerous aspects of social politics that allows said constructs to be vivisected with the most entertaining irreverence possible. Professing themselves as the “Insane Brown Posse,” Das Racist spend “All Tan Everything” and the bulk of the Sit Down, Man mixtape showing that the best part about being the smartest guy in the room is that it opens up countless doors to absurd juxtaposition. By mixing the highbrow with the lowbrow, “All Tan Everything” is rap’s best unibrow of 2010. – Chaz Kangas
Very loosely structured around Civil War history, Titus Andronicus’ sophomore effort The Monitor is foremost a document of the way individuality can often get swallowed up by chaotic moments in time, of how history itself is the inaccurate story of the select few who get remembered at the cost of countless individual lives. The Monitor’s triumphant finale “The Battle of Hampton Roads” perhaps articulates this point most clearly. Arguing that “solidarity’s gonna give a little less than it’ll take,” “Hampton Roads” is a tirade against losing that individuality, of giving up your Self without a fight, no matter how futile the effort or how dire the circumstances. While frontman Patrick Stickles describes a seemingly never-ending list of shit that life throws at us all, the music just builds and builds until a pummeling wave of noise accumulates, ending the album not with a bang but with a drone.
And isn’t that fitting? At the end of 2010 we’re witnessing the same exact thing: screaming psychotics have reclaimed half the government, “peddling hate at the back of a Chevy Express” while we all fall further and further in a tailspin of economic despair and it’s a mess to be sure. And yet it’s these chaotic moments, when everything seems darkest, that you see humanity most clearly. We’re not perfect, we’re not even great, and we bring about horrible destruction to each other on a regular basis, but it’s this shared understanding of the terror of life’s lesser moments that makes us human. – Nick Hanover
Just as two wrongs do not make a right, two rights do not always equal super-fantastic. So when it was announced that Shins frontman James Mercer and Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) were collaborating under the moniker Broken Bells, the indie world waited with bated breath. Supernovas of their own genres, would one star swallow up the other? Fortunately for all of us, the cosmos has remained intact, if not better lighted, as a result of this project. Indeed, the Broken Bells partnership is a point of apogee for both men’s artistic pursuits.
The first single from their self-titled debut, “The High Road” typifies all that is righteous about the Bells. The bloopy post-funk synth intro immediately stamps it with Danger Mouse’s trademark, while the song settles in with a tight shimmering tambourine beat as Mercer’s vocals start off low and dusky. And soon we’re treated to it; lines like, “Come on and get the minimum/ Before you open up your eyes…” are where Mercer’s voice is at its most keening and brilliant. “The High Road” demonstrates the elixir-like effects of infusion. Far from duking it out for dominance, the Mouse and the Shin channel each other in all the right ways. For a song that is likely about the drug trade, it’s damn slinky and sexy. If this is the sound a broken bell makes, we are lucky for the fracturing. – Stacey Pavlick
“Achieving musical transcendence is a tricky feat, almost definitively,” Band of Horses pondered on a recent MySpace blog. Could have fooled us. Ben Bridwell has made a career of musical transcendence, creating tunes that leave listeners feeling like they’re shuffling along in the alt-country grass or floating in a spacious sea of strings and synths. “Factory,” Infinite Arms’ opening track, falls under the latter: a soaring ballad with a full string section, plenty of reverb dripping from Bridwell’s instantly recognizable vocals and an attention to lyrical detail that puts the songwriter on par with those to whom he draws constant comparisons.
“The elevator in the hotel lobby has a lazy door/ The man inside is going to a hotel room/ He jumped right out after seeing just the very sight of me/ Decided he better hike it to the second floor,” Bridwell begins, setting the tone for the type of darkly humorous, self-deprecating loner’s lamentation that’s become synonymous with the Seattle rockers. The fact that the grounded lyrics (“A man gets lonely, for heaven’s sake/ He’s wondering only what did you do today/ The worlds spinning around into an old, sad song“) stand in contrast to the airy arrangements only adds to the song’s intrigue, leaving listeners with a mixed bag of emotions akin to the narrator himself. Ultimately, “Factory” hints at salvation – “But looking back now/ I think it’s time for me to laugh about it/ And get my things together/ And find something to say” – and demonstrates a survivalist mentality that those who’ve hit rock bottom sometimes miraculously discover. Anyone familiar with Bridwell’s past knows he’s certainly a survivor. And “Factory” is likely to survive the test of musical transcendence at the end of many a year. – Marcus David
Sometimes we just need a pissed off song madly conducted by a gruff, snarling voice to get the blood bubbling, and for 2010 we got Gonjasufi’s “She Gone.” Perhaps the standout track on A Sufi and a Killer, an album so jammed up with genre-busting ideas that it’s likely to remain a dizzying mind fuck years from now, the song perfectly captures both the implied and overt violence of the album’s most psychotic moments. The track starts off deceptively with a basic acoustic guitar and plainly sung lyrics, but soon degenerates into a whole other beast, with the sufi/killer spitting out lyrics of betrayal and occasionally growling out guttural screams against a demonic keyboard melody and a stabbing guitar that enhance the song’s threatening tone.
The song’s tale is a familiar one, though it comes with a twist. She’s gone for sure, but we never find out to what extent. Is she simply a departed lover or has something far more sinister transpired? Given the lyrics – barked out lines like, “When you’re driving down the street/ And acting like you do not know me/ Wondering why your life’s incomplete/ And you feel so damn lowly” – it’s likely the former, but the song sounds so homicidal that it’s tempting to view it in far more macabre terms. Either way, “She Gone” is simply a perfect pseudo-rock song, an ugly mix of emotions building up and boiling over in less than three minutes. Unresolved anger and a score not yet quite settled rarely sounded so good. – Eric Dennis
What do you do after writing one of the best songs of the decade? Lesser musicians would either give up or futilely try to recapture the magic, but LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy followed up the majestic “All My Friends” by getting more introspective, more personal and more into 1970s art-pop. I sometimes describe the band as dance music for aging indie kids and hipsters, which sounds flip, but it’s meant as a compliment. Who else is doing songs that you can get drunk and dance to, but also writes lyrics that can eloquently sum up what you’re feeling? “I Can Change” is a heart-on-its-sleeve, first-person story of a relationship, but played out on the dance floor. There are fights, misunderstandings, pleas for help and a chorus that will be familiar to most men: “I can change.” It’s a common sentiment, but it’s never been set to such catchy rhythms before and it carries more emotional nuance and weight than a dozen mumbly indie drams.
“I Can Change” also boasts one of Murphy’s finest vocal performances – vulnerable, soulful and poignant and never self-pitying. While plenty has been said about the production of the band’s songs, it cannot be overstated how uncluttered, distinct and clear every element of the song is – the beats precise and danceable, the keyboards gorgeous and classic, the plaintive vocals exactly right in the mix. It’s a song that has your back, because we older people need to dance and still feel our age. This is the song I want to be dancing to on New Year’s Eve; it lets you lose yourself in dancing, but not forget who you are. – Lukas Sherman
“Dance Yrself Clean” begins quietly, ominously: a quiet, stuttering beat and the occasional jab of a muted synthesizer. Singer/mastermind James Murphy haltingly mumbles out a cryptically barbed lyric accusing someone of “talking like a jerk/ Except you are an actual jerk/ And living proof that sometimes friends are mean.” It begins an atypical track for the synth-rock superstar, nearly skittish in its coiled intensity…until just past the three-minute mark, when everything explodes. The drums redouble themselves, the synthesizer becomes a massive throb, Murphy’s mutter becomes a howl and the volume pumps way up.
The opening track to LCD Soundsystem’s third (and maybe/hopefully not final) album This Is Happening starts as something subtler and nervier than their classic rock-informed dance majesty, but once the sound kicks in, Murphy’s obsessions come straight to the fore. There are intimations of aging (“Everybody’s getting younger/ It’s the end of an era, it’s true“), musings on troubled romance (“Arguments are made for make-ups/ So give it just a little more time“), even a call back to his own epochal “All My Friends” with the desperate “I miss the way the night comes/ With friends who always make it feel good.” But more than being a simple retread of past glories, “Dance Yrself Clean” pushes the bar for Murphy. He sounds more human, more angry than he ever has before, more willing to sing and be heard than mute himself in ironies and spoken phrases. The music may seize you by the bones and make you dance, but it’s the emotion that sticks with you. – Nathan Kamal
In the entire written history of the English language, the words “MTV” and “classy” have seldom appeared in the same sentence without a certain dose of sarcasm or being joined by the word “not” somewhere. The network’s annual shameless celebrity train wreck crescendo known as the Video Music Awards is no exception, with the show dependably being stolen by some extravagant celebrity tantrum. This year, however, the talk of the night was devoid of any snarky remarks or snide criticism, as Florence and the Machine’s performance of “Dog Days Are Over” became a show-stopping reminder of what the art of combining music and visuals could be.
As amazing as the multi-level, multi-angle choreography was, it’s the foundation of such a powerful song that sent the performance into the stratosphere. Originally recorded with no instruments, singer Florence Welch’s voice is a vulnerable juggernaut, accentuated and propelled by a veritable orchestra of arrangements, resulting in one of the vaguest statements laid to record all year. Inspired by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s text installation of the same name, the source material was intended to signify an end to a time of turmoil. What Florence and the Machine have given us is a confirmation that there indeed are better times ahead. – Chaz Kangas
On the surface, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home,” the true standout single from their debut album Up From Below, is a simplistic, acoustic guitar-based song punctuated with some whistling and handclaps. At its core though, “Home” is buoyed by the real-life relationship between the band’s two lead singers, Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos. With every line of non-sequiturs, Ebert and Castrinos struggle to explain the power of love and attraction, trying out all sorts of combinations of words, hoping to stumble upon just the right tone and feeling. Like the hippie-folk version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Ebert and Castrinos’ relationship provides the track with an infectious amount of honesty, raw emotion and faith.
The overwhelming feeling of love is made all the more powerful when the 12-plus person band kicks in with horns, shakers, accordions and keys. “Home” literally is communal love in every sense of the word; it’s about the beginning of relationships, the funny coincidences, the mishaps and the safety provided by inexplicable, honest-to-god love. “Home” is exactly what its title suggests: a place of familiarity and comfort. It’s honest without being clichéd and hook-laden without growing monotonous. Most importantly though, it’s an ode to those tingling sparks that we can all relate to. – Kyle Fowle
Choosing a National track for this year-end list wasn’t easy, since more than a few High Violet songs – opener “Terrible Love,” closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and a handful in between – could easily be included in this feature. In the end, though, we opted for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” if for no other reason that it embodies everything the National’s ever-expanding fan base has come to admire in the band: smart lyrics that are easy to relate to even while they’re pretty far out there; Matt Berninger’s throaty baritone that seems to emerge through a filter of clenched teeth and suppressed emotion; and a masterful, multi-layered musical composition that few modern acts even come close to approaching.
The picture “Bloodbuzz” paints is far from pretty, which is no surprise considering Violet’s few moments of redemption are largely overshadowed by darkness and doubt. We may never know what Berninger means when he repeats that he’s “on a blood buzz” (hell, are we ever sure who Mr. November is and that he won’t fuck us over?), but the song’s more direct moments suggest an Ohio expatriate deep in debt (“I still owe money/ to the money/ to the money I owe“), loveless and the opposite of homesick (“I never thought about love/ when I thought about home“). The melancholic content never becomes overly sentimental, and the guitar-heavy accompaniments and booming percussion provide a boost of energy and enthusiasm worthy of (arguably) indie’s most talented band. “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees,” Berninger laments early on in the song. Sounds like one hell of a bad trip. But it’s music to our ears, and makes for one of 2010’s most memorable tracks. – Marcus David
Even on an album full of impeccable tunes, Janelle Monae may have crafted the perfect single: “Tightrope” is a finely tuned machine of a funk song. It’s efficient; every word or sound strikes precisely when it needs to – never before or after – and no one gummed up the gears with synthesizers or heavy effects. Stuttering drums, stammering vocals and horn breaks capture a sort of industrial energy in the song that seems in danger of spilling into the streets of Metropolis itself. Such classic songcraft distinguishes Monae’s “Tightrope” from releases by her pitch-corrected, ’80s revivalist contemporaries. She’s doing something different, and she’s doing it damn well.
From her first triumphant cry to her final murmurs, on “Tightrope” Monae establishes herself as a powerful vocalist and star pupil of great teachers like James Brown and Michael Jackson. Her lyrics exude cautious optimism without being saccharine. There will be uncertainty, fear or jealousy. There will be haters. But regardless of the highs and lows, you’re meant to follow your own passions. To “tip on the tightrope” at once evokes being true to yourself, taking risks and finding balance, three things Monae embodies herself and as the heroine of The ArchAndroid. Though written as part of an elaborate concept album, “Tightrope” stands on its own while remaining a really fun introduction to the tale of Cindy Mayweather, android savior of tomorrow. At the intersection of pop and politics, of soul and symbolism, Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” was undoubtedly a breakout single of 2010. – Katie Bolton
Coming towards the end of The Suburbs, the album that found the Arcade Fire moving from theaters to arenas, “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is anchored by keyboards, lacks the euphoric group vocals of many of their songs and features Regine Chassagne (she of the dress-matching gloves and twirling pom-poms) on lead vocals. While it fits in thematically with the rest of the album, it sounds like little else in the group’s catalog, its layers of shimmering keyboards recalling Abba and the golden age of synth-pop. You could probably dance to it if you wanted. Chassagne’s vocals are clear and a little quirky, more understated than husband Win Butler’s, but no less heartfelt or emotionally engaging.
Taking its subtitle from a Tracy Kidder book and like much of the album, it’s a song that can be seen as a grim statement about the conformity and boredom of suburban life, but also hopeful and uplifting. There is a sense of confrontation here, both in the refrain of “Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains” and in lines like “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” The album explores the dead heart of the suburbs, but the song is also strangely triumphant because of its pure pop melodies and because we know that the band – the kooky, awkward art and theater kids – escaped the mediocrity of the suburbs to become one their generation’s greatest bands. They got away from the sprawl, and this is the kind of transcendent pop song that convinces listeners that they can also make it out. – Lukas Sherman
“Pretty girls don’t just park where they want to/ They gotta go ’round in circles like we all do,” begins the opening verse of “Sink/Let It Sway,” which eventually concludes that these girls will soon realize that “everything is not okay.” Coupled with the bridge, it sounds like Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (SSLYBY, or “The Yelts” for short) somehow managed to make the catchiest song about apocalypse since Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers.” “I used to think/ The whole world’s gonna sink/ And where will we be,” muses lead singer Philip Dickey – lyrics that seem hilariously inappropriate for a song with handclaps.
But, as much as I’d like it to be, “Sink/Let It Sway” isn’t about eschatological concerns but rather positivity in the face of depressing times. “Head low, but you gotta let it sway/ No miracle gonna happen you feel that way,” goes the chorus – not quite as blindly reassuring as Isaac Brock in “Float On,” but more pragmatic. “No firecracker in the dark gonna light your way,” the song continues realistically. Cheer up, and maybe something good will happen, but nothing good will happen if you keep on being a Negative Nancy. Yes, it’s a simple sentiment, but a friendly one delivered in a tremendously infectious indie pop song; think of it as “The Middle” for the Death-Cab-circa-2004 set (and I’m not saying that just because Chris Walla produced the thing). Which isn’t to say that “Sink/Let It Sway” is dated;- in fact, its brand of guitar-driven indie rock feels timeless, like any good bit of pop music. It begs to be listened to over and over – not just for daily affirmation, but to forever sway to the music. – Danny Djeljosevic
10. Beach House
When they’re at their best, Beach House come across like Stevie Nicks singing a lullaby from the cold depths of outer space. So, fitting for its title, “Norway” is cold and sparse enough that it might be appropriate accompaniment to trudging across an empty, frozen Scandinavian plain. But what really places “Norway” in the upper echelon of Beach House’s output so far – and makes it one of the year’s standout tracks – is the way the Baltimore duo married such a simple hook to the formula, augmenting a rippling guitar and pulsating drum with “ah ah ah”s as Victoria Legrand draws out the song’s title to something like seven syllables.
While the tone of Teen Dream, the album that spawned “Norway,” is occasionally brighter than Beach House’s norm, what makes “Norway” such an anomaly – and satisfying enough that we keep returning to it nearly a year after its release – is that it transcends the duo’s usual M.O., opting to be more of a pop song than the band’s usual dreamy, lo-fi approach. And while there’s plenty on Teen Dream to indicate that Legrand and bandmate Alex Scally haven’t lost their knack for that style, “Norway” is the right 90-degree turn at the right time. – Aaron Passman
9. Surfer Blood
The name of the band does not deceive. The music from Surfer Blood’s debut album Astro Coast sounds like surf rock jams from a haunted beach. This is especially evident on the buzzing, soaring single “Swim,” which finds the salty ocean air just starting to corrode the sunshine vibe. The guitars crunch and grind in splendid combat with the echoing vocals of lead singer John Paul Pitts. He drives each word with an urgency that sounds like Jan and Dean screaming a harmonized warning across a yawning, darkening void.
There’s an ominous quality to the whole thing, especially the urging of the chorus to “swim to reach the end.” It’s not just a friendly paddle in the water; it feels like there’s danger there, eddies to struggle past before reaching safety on some distant shore. And just when it seems the drums have punched the song to its tight conclusion, there’s one final gurgled sonic charge to the song, one last rush up the sand by a murky tide. It’s the spectral remnants of a song that does fierce work, all hook and defiance and the angry promise of triumph against the gloom. “Look at what’s in store for me/ Heads will turn in disbelief” is the promise Pitts delivers in the lyrics, and, no matter how dark it may sound, it’s clear that there’s also an element of a victory lap to this particular plunge. – Dan Seeger
8. Sleigh Bells
[N.E.E.T./Mom & Pop]
Among loud, aggressive songs on a killer debut album that traffics in dialed-up noise and speaker-cracking distortion, “Infinity Guitars” feels even louder. Sleigh Bells’ duo includes a number of details to amplify that effect: a bass-drum riding beat with nothing in the way of midrange, ripping guitar chords on chainsaw repeat and Alexis Krauss’ powerhouse vocals jumping between soft sighs, fist-pumping sing-speech and scuzzy girl-group accents – all shocked out to ear-piercing extremes. This is awesomely giddy stuff, energetic raging by a sexy frontwoman with songwriter Derek Miller bringing the most out of her delivery. Most of Treats relies heavily on the contrast between Miller’s varied guitar sounds and Krauss’ naturally sweet voice, but this is her belting out the words at her least delicate, slinging out those “deaf chords” with some serious go-to-hell attitude. He just sits back and lets her spit fire, all of his production a trail of gasoline ready for her spark.
Yet Sleigh Bells is not a metal band, nor is “Infinity Guitars” just another noise battle relying on garage-grease theatrics. Miller playfully works in handclaps and rhythms straight out of the high school drumline, invoking an image of nostalgia and then tearing it down noisily. True to the track’s equally delightful music video, “Infinity Guitars” is built to make you want to walk with a strut and punch a few people in the face. Hell, with such a raw delivery it’s almost too much fun. But for a little over two minutes of Sleigh Bells’ best work, too much is actually just right. – Michael Merline
7. The Roots
“How I Got Over”
Nobody quite forms a song like the Legendary Roots Crew. Since 1993, they’ve been critical darlings with their blend of funky, live instrumentation and hip-hop sensibilities. Over the course of 11 albums, the band’s sound has evolved from its gritty Philadelphia origins to be at the top of the neo-soul game, and on their 2010 release How I Got Over they’re the sharpest they’ve been in years.
Drummer ?uestlove’s percussion takes the back seat on “How I Got Over” to a chorus featuring the refrain, “Someone has to care,” making the song reminiscent of the socially conscious 1970s; this could be Marvin Gaye crooning along with lyricist Black Thought on the track. “Captain” Kirk Douglas’ guitar playing is smooth and jazzy. The song features some of Black Thought’s sharpest observations yet, and keyboardist Kamal Gray delivers a rolling electric piano line that vibes beautifully with Douglas’ guitar line and syncs perfectly with ?uestlove’s metered drum hits. While the album features some eclectic experimentation, including harp player Joanna Newsom, the gospel-tinged sound of “How I Got Over” best captures The Roots at a creative peak. The song is affirming as well as catchy, so while the message gets broadcast it does not come across as dry or preachy. The Roots have had many singles, some more successful than others, but “How I Got Over” proves that they still have their chops. – Rafael Gaitan
6. Beach House
The simplest way to summarize Beach House’s “Zebra,” thematically at least, is to say that it’s an ode to the black and white horse itself. The daydream-like picture painted by its words recalls the vague passion of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, especially in lines like, “Your love is stag in the white sand/ Oasis child born into a man” and “Wilderness for miles/ Eyes so mild and wise.” But the duplicity of the 3-D rhythm here prompts more wide-eyed ideas. The duo’s trademark Casio organ and a fog of backing “ahhhs” float in the background, leading up to cymbals shattering in sync with the beautiful ups and downs of Victoria Legrand’s voice. Drum hits poke between beats in the second verse with a guitar line teasingly complementing each and every word. “Zebra” grows and grows, only resolving in a few climactic flourishes, never fully dropping the bomb until the song has stewed around in your brain for a bit. By the song’s end it’s irrelevant if the animal in question is in fact an animal, a god, an ex-wife or just a concept (and it’s also irrelevant what exactly a horse “arching among us” looks like). It emanates obsession with who or whatever the subject is.
As an introduction to the slow-burning twists and turns on Teen Dream that follow, it is a near-perfect construction of melodic discipline and phenomenally tasteful production; Alex Scally and Legrand have yet to succumb to the temptations of unnecessary strings, horns, guests and meandering Suburbs-ian filler, as proven in the remainder of this hazy masterpiece. As a standalone song, it is intensely provocative, deceptive and fascinating – much like Beach House’s view of the titular beast itself. – Kyle Wall
Serving as an absolute eruption of an opening track for The Monitor, the second LP from our favorite group of piss-and-vinegar-full Jersey boys, “A More Perfect Union” is like an establishing shot of a movie where a car whizzes past on a highway. With this song, though, Titus Andronicus’ singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles practically grabs us and drags us by the ear in the direction of The Monitor’s narrative. Having stared long into the void of the Garden State on The Airing of Grievances, Stickles and company this time explore a move north to Boston, in the hopes of finding more thoughtful, ideologically copacetic neighbors and a different way of life, only to find out that the Civil War may never have ended and that he “never should have left New Jersey.”
In “California Songs,” Midwesterners Local H pleaded “no more California songs/ And fuck New York too;” similarly minded East Coasters native to parts of the original colonies rarely glorified in popular song get theirs in “Union.” In an opening verse that references both Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen, Stickles mentions East Coast landmarks and minutiae that make the raging song and its singer startlingly real; Stickles races down Route 84 and Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, recalls the NY-Boston Fung Wah bus line and shouts for the local sports team “in the light of the Fenway,” an early sign of fish-out-of-water dissonance immediately endearing to anyone familiar with that environment. Ambitious and sprawling, “Union” has a guitar-as-tin-whistle interlude before Stickles settles down into the realization that Boston’s going to be a fight. It “deserves a better class of criminal,” Stickles sings, and he promises that he’s that guy. Being young, poor and righteously indignant rarely sounded as good as it does here. – Chris Middleman
The shining star off Menomena’s Mines is also its most complex. The band’s self-programmed song-conceiving software, Deeler, spun an unlikely web of song fragments that play as naturally as any simple pop song on “TAOS.” The song begins with a fuzzy bass loop that’s soon joined by Justin Harris’ creamy howl (which sounds pleasurably similar to Blur’s Damon Albarn) and an array of stray lead guitar licks and noises. But when the song dissolves into its chorus, its rewards really come into play. Billy Joel-like piano pounding adds a tinge of classic urban sensibility to the track’s modern groove. Add to this nomadic splashes of backing strings, horns and Beach Boys-inspired vocal harmonies and you have a rare feat of intricate aural choreography.
The song’s upbeat and confident attitude skitters under an ironic theme riddled with insecurities and hopeful personal blooming. “TAOS” plays even more off-kilter when a mellow piano interlude accompanies the protagonist’s struggle: “Underneath this fleshy robe lies a beast with no control/ I fed it once look how it’s grown/ I can’t shake loose from its teeth/ Oh my god, set me free/ I have no ability to cut my leash and walk away.” The instruments rejoin and crescendo into a final climax of feel-good rock n’ roll that brims with personal relevance. “TAOS” is an experience of many magnitudes, and a prime example of when left-brained song-writing goes right. – Jory Spadea
Every superhero need his theme music,” Kanye West raps on “Power,” the first single from My Dark Twisted Fantasy and one of the best tracks of the year. One year ago at this time, West was down and out, his reputation tarnished by jackass publicity stunts and an ego on a collision course with disaster. There was that horrible set at Bonnaroo that didn’t start until 6 in the morning and Taylor Swiftgate; even President Obama was up in this guy’s shit. But here we are in late 2010 where, after a self-imposed banishment, West has returned with both a killer album in Twisted and an infectious song in “Power.”
Using a sample from King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” (Cold Grits’ “It’s Your Thing” is also in there), West created his lushest track yet with “Power.” Beginning with handclaps and a women’s chorus, the track just builds and builds until all of its elements exist in precise harmony. But perhaps most important of all, “Power” is Ye coming to terms with his immaturity, being an “asshole” and the responsibility of being a star. “My childlike creativity, purity and honesty is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts/ Reality is catching up with me, taking my inner child, I’m fighting for custody,” he claims. But moments later he raps, “I don’t need yo pussy bitch, I’m on my own dick/ I ain’t gotta power trip, who you goin’ home with?” King Crimson fantasized about a 21st century schizoid man, yet Kanye West is living the role. – David Harris
Scoff all you want, haters, but Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is TOTALLY Generation Y’s Brian Wilson. No, she might not be quite as obsessed with sonics or have spent years in bed (though give her enough weed and her cat, Snacks, and she just might consent), but Cosentino produces the same caliber of sweet, sun-dappled, teen romance California pop that we’ve had fun fun fun listening to for decades. No other song on Best Coast’s debut Crazy For You personified this better than “Boyfriend,” a deceptively simple, dreamy ballad about aching for someone to notice you in that way. “I wish he was my boyfriend/ I’d love him ’till the very end/ But instead he is just a friend,” she laments, channeling the diaries of teen girls everywhere. Her lyrics might not be obscure, but they’ve got something better going for them – they’re real.
Anyone who says they don’t relate to “Boyfriend” is a damn dirty liar; everyone on Earth has had a crush so consuming they could barely breathe, a crush that felt like it could actually physically kill you. And we listen to “Boyfriend” with a sigh of relief that we don’t actually feel those feelings anymore, but can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia. Crushes sucked, but they were fun – just like “Boyfriend.” – Ashley Thiry
Is there any more wonderful sensation in the world than falling in love? Probably not, but if there is, it’s the feeling of telling an ex-lover’s new flame to get lost, take a hike, piss off, or in Cee Lo Green’s immortal words, “Fuck you.” The lead single from the singer/rapper/all-around soulman (formerly of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley), “Fuck You” is a delightfully damaged piece of vitriol, a stinging yet still desperately romantic song. Bolstered by an amazingly catchy, neo-Motown beat and cheery backup vocals calling back lyrics like, “Oh shit, she’s a gold digger/ Just thought you should know, nigga,” Green recounts a tale of woe and broken hearts, of his own desperation and righteous anger. He doesn’t have enough money to satisfy the girl? Well, fuck you. He stole and begged and cheated, just to keep her happy? Well, fuck you. You’re the one that’s in love with her now? Well, fuck you and fuck her too.
Green’s song is an anthem for anyone who has ever felt their romantic despair turn into epic anger, for any situation in which someone feels the simple freedom to unleash their own hurt on the ones who inflicted it. And miracle of miracles, Green makes you feel good about it. Even when he breaks down on the bridge and confesses that he still loves the heartbreaker and can’t understand why she’d leave, he pulls himself together to howl one more chorus of “Fuck you!” right back. – Nathan Kamal