20. “Go Do” by Jonsi
Much like the best Sigur Ros songs, this track just fills the brain with a sense of wonder. It simply feels like flying above a landscape and viewing the whole beautiful world. The song is both pretty and epic – those thudding drums are amazing, and the voice combines perfectly with flutes and strings to push forward and into the mind.
19. “Compliments” by Band of Horses
When I first heard this, I didn’t realize it was Band of Horses – the voices and guitars were slightly different. But after 20 listens, it was clear that this was a new height for the band. Strong, exploratory lyrics and a slightly swung meter make this song stick. Of course, without those great guitars, this wouldn’t be on the list. This song stands with even “The Funeral” in their catalog.
18. “F*** You” by Cee Lo Green
Delightful profanity is always fun, but this time it’s universal. “F*** You” was everywhere last year, and with good reason. The song itself is a pitch-perfect blend of 1960s style and modern production. It’s a great cousin to “Hey Ya” and seems to have just as much air time. What puts it over the edge is Cee Lo Green, with excellent singing and playful wit (“Just thought you should know n*****”).
17. “Everlasting Light” by The Black Keys
This is tight. Blues rock was supposed to be dead unless it was done by Jack White. Instead, these guys out of Akron lay down some of the most muscular, passionate music in years. The song is very simple, but it just works. A very focused guitar, a straightforward drum and a great singer make this one of the best songs of the year. Be sure to see these guys live too – they rock.
16. “Cousins” by Vampire Weekend
It’s unlikely that the band will ever capture the pop perfection of “A-Punk” but this song certainly taps a similar vein of brilliance. Psychotic guitars drive the song, and it always feels just on the edge of collapse. Instead, they push the pace forward, making this wild track one of the most satisfying in their short career. It certainly helps that the final-lap close is an exceptional release.
15. “Let it Sway” by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
This is pure pop near its best. Light jangling guitars, catchy melodies, easy-to-hear lyrics and a reasonable song structure are all crucial. But the most important parts are the intro and outro. That opening guitar salvo is very welcoming and danceable, and the closing breakdown has some excellent handclaps. Fabulous track.
14. “Something Good Can Work” by Two Door Cinema Club
These Irish guys can summon up some infectious music. Focused and consistent drumming help push the piece forward while the vocalist enthusiastically explores a potential relationship start. Of course, the content doesn’t really matter so much here. Those brilliant gutiars and synths make this one of the most upbeat tracks all year and works great on repeat.
13. “Lemonworld” by The National
One of the most complex and emotionally weighty songs on this list. It’s certainly The National, but it’s better than most of their works. Lyrically, this is a powerful reflection on the sorrows of modern life and escapism, and it blends perfectly with Matt Berninger’s baritone. The straining strings and monolithic drums only help to give the song a distinctive and touching feel.
12. “Written in Reverse” by Spoon
Spoon is at their best when stripped down and rocking out. “Written in Reverse” is just that type of song, and the true best off the underrated Transference. Britt Daniels works the vocals with his typically confident style, the piano keys get beaten to lovely effect, and the guitar is simply attacked. This has quickly joined the status of classic Spoon songs, and rightfully so.
11. “All of the Lights” by Kanye West
The most exciting (and exhausting) song on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is also the best. Rihanna doesn’t suck, Kanye is sharp, and the horns are awesome. Of course, it’s the speed and percussion that matter here. It feels like going downhill, especially in that chorus. And, oh that chorus. Almost makes you want to buy some new light bulbs.
10. “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae had one of the most successful breakouts in music this year. She managed to juggle an appearance of part-diva, part-artist, and all-round entertainer. “Tightrope” is her brightest point in what is practically a supernova of a debut. She sings like Aretha, has artistic integrity, and had a phenomenal backing band. If you can somehow avoid the power of “Tightrope” you’re not human. This is what happens when R&B is truly great.
09. “I Don’t Believe You” by The Thermals
There isn’t a particularly strong reason for why this song is so good. It might be the pop-punk precision. In only three minutes, The Thermals display great presence and personality. Maybe it’s the guitar. They’re exceptionally tight, offering a relentless melodic background. Or maybe it’s those vocals, slightly strained and generally angry. Or maybe it’s all of it at once. Punk is fun, but when it’s refined it is great.
08. “All I Want” by LCD Soundsystem
This is the most emotional song on This is Happening, and also the best. James Murphy sounds at the brink of pure breakdown throughout the song, and you can’t help but share his pain when he describes a breakup, noting “It’s too late to make it [the relationship] strong.” Yes, the musicianship is all there, but the sad, pathetic cries push this to a different plane of song. Murphy is human, and you cry with him as he wails “Take me home.”
07. “Chase Scene” by Broken Social Scene
Right from the start, it’s clear you’re in for something wild. That strange guitar strum is pretty cool, and it quickly develops into an interesting multi-vocalist effort. Of course, it hits hardest when heavier drums start to pick up. And from there, it sounds like beautiful chaos. Massive, unrelenting horns and strings just build, growing to a point of explosion. Thankfully, the band gives us that release, with one final epic chord. It’s tiring to listen to, but insanely awesome.
06. “I Want the World to Stop” by Belle & Sebastian
Such a beautiful, delicate song. It exists in real fragility for so much of its first few half, feeling very dependent on itself. Without those vocals, the keyboards or lightly plucking guitars, it would just fall apart into nothingness. But then, strings and horns pick up and give the structure real meat. Everything picks up, and the gorgeously catchy piece becomes powerful and infectious. But the one constant, and the clincher, is the drumming. Everything feels so unified, and this is the center point. It’s a shame it took me so long to find this band – they’re amazing.