25) M.I.A. – “Bad Girls” [Interscope]
Originally released by M.I.A. as a 2:13 worldbeat experiment on 2010’s Vicki Leekx mixtape, the extended edit of “Bad Girls” blends the jovial tenacity of the younger performer with the alternative pop sheen the songstress has cultivated in the interim 13 months. True, the song centers on M.I.A. getting banged in the front seat of her car (“My chain hits my chest when I’m banging on the dashboard/ My chain hits my chest when I am banging on the radio”) but it also represents a broader sense of sexual empowerment. When combined with the Middle Eastern instrumentation, and Arab-themed music video, the track is an aural manifestation of that area’s ongoing cultural renaissance. During a year of civil strife and leadership upheaval, the song is an uber-catchy voice for a generation more comfortable with testing their gender roles and authority figures, a notion that is universal and timeless.
Possible deeper meanings aside, “Bad Girls” stands as M.I.A.’s most infectious track since “Paper Planes.” Produced by Virginia’s Danja, the beat hits with the tempo of a club-ready hip-hop track and employs the dancehall vibe, complete with syncopated drum beats, which first turned the world on to M.I.A. (and Diplo) on Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1.
Now 37, it will be interesting to see how long M.I.A. can maintain the energy and lyrical composition of a twentysomething; listening to a 40-year-old M.I.A. rap about her sexual exploits may be as undesirable as listening to Madonna currently sing about trying to find Molly. But for now, “Bad Girls” has landed at the perfect setting. – Derek Staples
24) Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” [Interscope]
The phrase “call me” or variants thereof have been uttered in pop songs for decades. Blondie produced not only “Call Me” but also the Nerves cover “Hanging on the Telephone.” But in the past, the phone less often serves as a tool of communication than as part of the feminine waiting game, a ritual in which desire is prolonged to a near-breaking point. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” represents the next evolution of this concept, a pop anthem for the era of ubiquitous smartphones and the autonomy they imply. The song expresses that same ideal love that has always transfixed pop music, but it introduces a new element─ that “maybe” of the chorus. The refrain “Call me, maybe” contains within it our culture’s predilection for choice and equality in all matters romantic: you put yourself out there, but it’s up to the other person to respond willingly. But the tension and perfect beauty of “Call Me Maybe” is the way this aspect sits alongside the song’s implied belief in a fated love (“Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad“), which theoretically nullifies choice in favor of something predestined. This is a potentially terrifying new paradigm for love, one in which so much is left up to chance, but it holds within it the promise of a new kind of equality in romance, a game of love whose participants occupy an entirely level playing field. This is how the song can speak of obsessive desperation (“I’d trade my soul for a wish,” “I beg and borrow and steal“) but ultimately sound like pure flirtatiousness (“Hey, I just met you/ And this is crazy…“), an intoxicating combination that captures love in the 21st century better than almost any other pop song. — Trevor Link
23. El-P – “The Full Retard” [Fat Possum]
It had been a half-decade since we last had a full-length album of former Definitive Jux head honcho and Company Flow member El-P melting microphones as only he can, but lucky for us he returned to rap circles swinging for the fences with his album Cancer 4 Cure’s first single “The Full Retard.” Along with the best titular line from any rap song this year (“I am Sam, I am known to go H-A-M, the full retard”) which somehow managed to pack five pop culture references in just the first half of the rhyme, “The Full Retard” reminded us that nobody makes run-on sentences as cool as El-P. Bearing lyrics that are as cynical, sarcastic, poignant, confrontational and layered as ever, his flow has never been as balls-out focused as it is here. The production, anchored by a bittersweet vocal sample of deceased friend and collaborator Camu Tao, amps up the tension as El cooks up a beat that sounds like Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad scoring a movie based on a Philip K. Dick novel. El’s always been years ahead of his time, and if this is any indication of what people in the future will pump, tomorrow’s hip-hop remains a very exciting prospect. – Chaz Kangas
22. Burial – “Kindred” [Hyperdub]
Contrary to popular opinion, the best music out there tends to be the type that doesn’t primarily rely on superfluous details such as discernible lyrics. If you crave transcendence through eloquence, read a poem. William Bevan (much more prominently known as Burial) knows what I’m talking about. The one-time mystery man, and forefather of dubstep (before knob-twiddling bros subsequently turned that particular term into industrial-strength douche) hasn’t bothered to drop a full-length in the last half-decade, but in the interim he’s scattered enough quality EPs (collaborative and not) to prove that he’s not only still relevant, but at the nebulous subgenre’s vanguard.
“Kindred” opens with rumbling clouds followed by the trademark 2-step garage beats that are coupled with emotively manipulated girl-next-door vocals. It’s not anything entirely groundbreaking, just more choice bits from an indisputable master of his craft. The thundering drops add an ominous ambiance, and a static hiss injects the lo-fi authenticity so coveted by today’s indie music fan. Its 11 minutes extend the track into epic territory without obnoxiously demanding our undivided attention. And every time the music’s unspoken narrative seems to be wrapping up, the track billows out into yet another round of drum machine and gristle, making the very fact that it’s on this list both (practically) a wonder and (critically) a no-brainer. Listen to “Kindred” when you need a shadowy respite from the litany of whiny lyricist palaver and feel its brooding, near-wordless glory. – Josh Goller
21. PSY – “Gangnam Style” [Schoolboy/Universal Republic]
Sometimes you have to take off the Irony Spectacles and yield to the audience.
Such is the case with “Gangnam Style,” the silly-but-extraordinarily-successful K-pop dance single released by PSY last July, which has literally conquered the world. This charming slice of cheese topped the pop charts in Australia, Lebanon, Spain, Great Britain, Mexico, Bulgaria and a dozen other countries, peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and even hit #1 on the Baidu 500 download chart in square old China. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, himself a South Korean, called the song “a force for world peace”(!) and hazarded a half-hearted public attempt at the song’s signature imaginary-pony dance moves.
Much of this success can be attributed to the frenetic, dazzling dance video accompanying “Gangnam Style,” which in less than six months became the most viewed video in YouTube history and is on track to become the first YT video to break one billion views. All this from a 34-year old, slightly pudgy singer who hardly fits the mold of the willowy, Beautiful Young Things typical of K-pop. Surely, the 21st century is very strange place.
No matter. Long live PSY! It can be argued—hell, I’m arguing—that no pop song in history has generated this kind of immediate global response, this despite the fact that for all its undeniable charm, “Gangnam Style” is virtually indistinguishable from anything else you’ve heard thumping out of the speakers at your favorite club. What that says about the future of quality pop is best left to the cool, analytical thinkers in the room. Me, I’m saddling up “Oppan Gangnam Style!” – Raymond Owen