Why 15? Because I couldn’t cut five from this list. I’m told that my blog entries are too long, and this is another long one. (I just can’t shut up.) In the old days, when I’d compose year-end mix tapes for whomever I was dating at the time, it was easy to selectively forget tracks that I’d tired of by year’s end and sub them out for edgier, less immediately accessible things that portrayed my musical taste in a more flattering light. Today, however, the iPod is a strictly literal indicator of what its user is REALLY listening to. In compiling this list, (presented here in no particular order), I’ve relied heavily on that last column in the iTunes playlist program under the subhead “Plays.” In other words, it’s all ice cream and french fries this time around. No broccoli.
I was a long time coming around to Arcade Fire (in fact, I may be walking in the front door just as everyone else is slipping out the back door), but the first single and title track off their 3rd album grabbed me by the ears and wouldn’t let go. A roadhouse piano stomper about some kind of disaster witnessed from afar by emotionally numb lovers on the run, “The Suburbs” kicks off a cycle of insightful, nuanced takes on contemporary suburban living. No small feat.
Critical darling Ariel Pink spends most of his time on Before Today coming on like a roughed-up, lo-fi Roxy Music or (dare I say it) 10cc. So it comes as quite a surprise when the chunky guitar blare of “Little Wig,” an extended pop-rock nugget that sounds like the Kinks, circa 1966, suddenly booms out of the speakers. I get the rest of the record, with its violins, synths, saxes, and faux-lux sheen, but I’m pretty partial to chunky guitar blare, too. Especially British Explosion chunky guitar blare that gives GBV’s Robert Pollard a run for his money.
Yes, hi there, thanks, I know. B.o.B (aka Bobby Ray Simmons Jr.) is hip-hop for white people laying over between flights in airport bars. He is to 2010 what Tone Loc was to 1989. I’m not all that partial to the big hits off The Adventures of Bobby Ray (“Airplanes,” “Magic”), although I should be, given their Gorillaz-like melding of radio-friendly alt-rock hooks and clearly enunciated rhymes. (If this were an album list, rather than a songs list, Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach would be prominently featured.) The only one that really catches my ear from B.o.B’s Adventures, however, is “Fame,” an implacably chugging and insistent mix of buried hook from the titular Bowie chestnut, plenty of woo-hooing back-up girls, and whiz-bang sound samples from what sounds like 70s-cartoon chase sequences. Also, the song’s opening and closing chant, “Pimp squad on deck!”, is exactly what I would chant if I were a 22-year-old rap superstar standing on a table with Kim Kardashian in the VIP area of Tao on New Year’s Eve.
I have to be careful with the labels I apply to bands. I don’t always match them up quite correctly. There was a time when the pastoral, reverby oceans of noise and feedback exemplified by Oneohtrix Point Never could be classified as space rock. In the ’90s, bands that brought more of a rock beat to their mesmerizing swirls of noise were classified as shoegaze. More recently, as electronica has appropriated elements of this sound, adding even more of a beat to it, the term “electrogaze” has been applied to leading lights of the scene like Ulrich Schnauss and Boards of Canada. All along, of course, there have been more purely ambient acts like Tim Hecker or Windy & Carl. Oneohtrix Point Never exists on the spectrum somewhere between Tim Hecker (or Brian Eno, for us old folks) and Ulrich Schnauss, jetting off into the ionsphere amid blue-shifted wave forms of sound. There. Does that help?
For years and years, everyone’s been waiting for a follow-up to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. But now we don’t need Jeff Mangum to come out of exile and unpack his flugelhorns and calliopes and zu-zithers, because we have Broken Social Scene. Comprised of anywhere from six to nineteen members (depending on who’s in town at any given moment), BSS never quite indulges in Mangum’s trademark sonic mayhem. But “Art House Director,” once it’s entirely airborne with its tuba farts, trombone fanfares, whooshy strings and what-all, and has achieved full marching-band forward momentum … well, it’s quite a thing to behold.
This song makes me want to be experiencing a painful, failed relationship just so I can enjoy the song even more. Cee-Lo Green’s voice is an astounding force of nature. It leaps out of your iPod headphones and scares you half to death with its awesomeness. Green (the voice half of Gnarls Barkley) did this exact same thing with “Crazy” in 2006. He creates R&B songs that even avowed pop soul/R&B haters like myself cannot dismiss or deny. I’ve since heard that this song has been nominated for 5 Grammy awards. I don’t see much reality TV or listen to much contemporary radio, so as of this writing, I am blissfully unacquainted with the “clean” version of this song.
Everything I know about Colleen Green I learned from track summaries of “Worship You” in Vice magazine and the music blog Altered Zones. Apparently, she’s a San Francisco musician giving away skronky lo-fi girl-group dance punk on her MySpace page and looking for a record label. This song, with its bloomping drum machine, frosty new wave buzz, and dinner-triangle guitar, sounds like Belinda Carlisle backed by Royal Trux and produced by Gary Numan. That means it’s good.
Anyone tangentially familiar with my Twitter feed will know that I am incapable of assuming any critical distance whatsoever from James Murphy. Nothing. Nada. Not an inch. “Drunk Girls,” the first single off this year’s This Is Happening, has received approximately 400,000 plays on my iPod since May. If James Murphy wanted simply to create endlessly catchy party anthems with lyric couplets like “Drunk boys, they walk like pedestrians/ Drunk girls, they wait an hour to pee,” he’d still be the finest musician working today. But he doesn’t. In fact, because he spent two decades laboring in relative musical obscurity, it turns out he has plenty to say. About relationships and fame. About nostalgia for the recent past. About your record collection. Where he once deadpanned precision-targeted zingers about club life and media aspirations, he’s now singing with surprising range, couching laments about mortality, busted relationships, and the loneliness at the top amid the grooves of punk/funk/house classic after classic. “Drunk Girls” gets the nod for this list based on its sheer number of iPod plays during innumerable summer distance runs. But really, any track on this record—“All I Want,” “I Can Change,” “Pow Pow,” “Home”—could go here.
This one’s not available on CD, not available on iTunes, but if you’ve seen the trailer for The Social Network, you know it. I’ve never been much for Radiohead, but something about an angelic choir of girls singing Radiohead’s ode to isolation and dread just bowled me over. Vega Choir, based in Malmo, Sweden, is a choir of 25 women, ages 18 to 25, who sing classic pop and rock songs. Works for me. I still haven’t seen the movie (I have kids, I’m waiting for the DVD), but if it’s half as good as this song, I’m going to like it.
Anybody heard from Limp Bizkit or Korn recently? Yeah, me neither. The titanic rap-rock breaks and turntable scratching are a distant memory now, but Kid Rock sails on, his marketing savvy and limitless capacity for staying relentlessly “on message” rivaled only by Bruce Springsteen among his arena-rocking peers. Like Springsteen, Rock lived hand-to-mouth on the music-biz fringes for over a decade, then released a couple of non-starter LPs before hitting it big, so he had plenty of time to hone his business instincts. A lot of people who take music very seriously refuse to take Kid Rock seriously, and I can see why. Every Kid Rock record contains at least two of the worst songs released by a major-label artist in that calendar year. But that’s the thing with Rock. He hits big or misses big; there’s no middle ground with him. On Born Free, the biggest bonehead miscue is “Care,” a plea for worldwide brotherhood that would embarrass Elton John. The highlight is “Slow My Roll,” a worldly-wise country-rock loper with chugging guitar, piano, and bevy of harmony singers having a good old time going nowhere in particular.
My fascination with this sort of hazy, smeary, euphoric, vaguely nostalgic dance pop began with 1998’s Moon Safari by Air. Air determinedly avoided remaking Moon Safari for years after its release, and by the time they gave up and tried to recapture its glory, they’d forgotten how. Fortunately, there are now dozens of bands who have latched on to its sound, none more gloriously than Delorean. Seasun is all echoey piano chords, synth twinkles, handclaps, and formless vocal vamping. The perfect thing for the zone-out that occurs between miles four and five of your early-evening run.
There was no Mountain Goats record this year (The Life of the World to Come arrived in October of 2009), so this collaboration with Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue is all the John Darnielle we got this year. Darnielle and Bruno have a history going back to the ’90s (including a previous record, 2002’s Martial Arts Weekend), but I’m not familiar with any of it. Undercard, the new one, offers a Mountain Goats-caliber feast of spot-on observations, gorgeous acoustic plucking, back-door epiphanies, and a haunting cover of Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before The War.” I could try to describe “Programmed Cell Death,” a rumination on the meaning of it all, situated by Darnielle in a supermarket, west of the mounds of avocados, near the Portugeuse sardines in Aisle 5, but I’ll let Darnielle do it instead. From his liner note: “Everybody remembers mitochondria, right? The powerhouse of the cell? Well it turns out that the powerthouse of the cell is in the business of sending little messages from within the powerhouse to the other discrete offices of the factory. One of these messages is ‘someday you have to kill yourself, I’ll tell you when.’ Every cell in the body you are presently using to navigate your way through the world today is thus programmed, thus prepared. It’s not that the game is rigged. It’s that the object of the game is something possibly a little removed from what you’d led yourself to believe, unless you are a goth.”
The only gem on the first disappointing Belle and Sebastian record. Stuart Murdoch’s been streamlining his B&S vehicle for maximum ’70s AM pop sheen for over a decade now, and the candid, earnest chamber pop of the ’90s records seems gone for good. I’m not sure if the decade of the ’10s needs another Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, but “Write About Love” is so effortlessly catchy and expertly arranged, I’m helpless to deny it.
I’m told that last summer was the summer of “chillwave,” and this is a perfect example of that new genre’s luxe, woozy keyboards, stumbly drum machines, and wistful longing vocals. A digital-only release from bedroom dance-pop auteur Teen Daze, the Four More Years EP sounds all of a piece, like an early-morning-hours rave heard from inside a tent on the far side of a hill from the main stage.
A reissue of Darkness On The Edge Of Town? What could be easier or more obvious? Just pair a remaster of the canonical original with an official release of one of the most often-bootlegged live shows in rock history—the 9/19/78 “Passaic Night” show at the Capitol Theatre. Right? Wrong. Instead we got three watch-’em-once DVDs, a remaster, and The Promise, a collection of outtakes not so much from Darkness, but rather from Tracks, Springsteen’s already comprehensive 4-CD outtakes collection. The result is a 2-CD set that answers the question, How great would it have been if Springsteen had released a Southside Johnny and the Jukes album between Born To Run and Darkness? (Answer: Not that great.) The songs here range from redundant to decent, with Disc 2’s “Ain’t Good Enough For You” emerging as the highlight. A soulful piano-led call-and-response jumper that recalls “Sherry Darling” or “Without You” (the 5th and last cut on the now-deleted Blood Brothers CD bonus EP), “Good Enough” captures Springsteen in a joyous, utterly unaffected tone of voice that largely disappeared after The River. A fun time capsule and a good way to end this.