BEST SONGS OF 2010: 5-1

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5. “Conversation 16” by The National

This was the song that finally got me.  I somehow didn’t “get it” for a while with The National.  I was like so many other lost souls.  I thought they were boring, or dull, or that every song sounded the same.  I appreciated the loud songs or the good piano songs, but I didn’t really understand.  And then the creepy chill of “Conversation 16” knocked me right over.  The warbling bass line and the pinpoint drums finally made sense.

But what I ultimately realized were the details.  The organic singing, the reeds playing, the haunting “ooo” behind the chorus, the emotive lyrics, the lightly plucked background guitar.  It took me long enough, but everything worked and that made every other National song work.  If you are how I was, I beg you to try this song.  It might change everything.

4. “Suburban War” by Arcade Fire

“Suburban War” is the most complete standalone song from The Suburbs and that’s why it lands so high.  Unlike the rest of the album, the mood and feeling of this song are retained in any setting, not just in its proper place.  The obvious draw is the plucked guitar that covers the majority of the song, but everything else leaves you holding on for more.

I personally love the little drum fill at the very start of the song, the sweeping strings, and the excellent harmonies.  But the song becomes so much more when it finally takes off, with thunderous drumming, desperate wails and a massive volume increase.  This gives the track real character, and leaves it as a very holistic composition.  This is the ultimate turning point on The Suburbs and the true highlight on a brilliant record.

3. “What You Know” by Two Door Cinema Club

I just can’t avoid this song or this band.  It defies simple dance rock by adding strong emotional depth.  While it starts with a “typical” guitar and drum figure, that high ringing guitar that enters at the 14-second mark changes everything.  Instead of just pushing with a grungy guitar and bass, the ringing guitar cries out with real strength and power.  It seems overkill, but it really makes the song.

But is one guitar enough to make it the third best track of the year?  It does when piled above an infectious beat, a great breakdown halfway through and enthusiastic singing.  Really, Tourist History does very little wrong, and this is the ultimate high point, with the whole track just popping out beyond almost all others this year.  Dance to it, feel sad about it, enjoy the whole thing.  It’s amazing.

 

2. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter

I’m not the world’s biggest Deerhunter fan.  I don’t really think Halcyon Digest is the pure masterpiece that so many others claim.  I don’t know that I could seriously sit through one of their albums more than once.  They’ve awfully experimental and dense – which isn’t a bad thing, it just doesn’t fit my tastes all the time.  Of course, they’ve managed to make two insanely huge exceptions in singles.  The first was “Nothing Ever Happened,” a purely brilliant song and fifth best of the last decade.  The second is this song.

I can’t really pinpoint why I love the song so much, but it’s crucial to note what a late entry this track was.  I hadn’t listened to any of the new Deerhunter record until Christmas, and somehow didn’t get all the way to this track.  Oh boy was I missing out.  There are such haunting and genuinely bothersome voices.  There is a real sense of escape, but you can’t tell if that’s a good thing.  The chorus is centered around the phrasing “Walking free, come with me / Far away, every day,” which would seem nice enough, but a very subtle “whoa-oh” follows after every three syllables.  It’s mildly liberating and terrifying.

But the true release is in the final half of the song, a lengthy guitar solo and instrumental breakdown, almost fullfilling the initial promise of freedom.  The production is stellar, the pacing perfect, and it just sticks with you the whole time.  I cannot say enough about this song, but it does fall short of the overall top status.

1. “Don’t Do It” by Sharon Van Etten

Here we are at the best song of the year.  I was introduced to Sharon Van Etten through the All Songs Considered NPR Podcast (an excellent way to find new music) and completely blown away by her voice.  Van Etten sounds confident, but not conceited, and emotional without being whiny.  She strikes one of the most perfect vocal balances in current music, and her warmth just draws you in.

From here, the song sweeps you away.  Sparse composition creates a strong backbone for the singing to work around.  It’s all about mood in the instrumentals, and they develop a very strong one.  Light and effective drumming keeps a consistent pace while gradually adding cymbals as the song builds.

The subject matter also pushes the song beyond a simple vocal reflection.  “Don’t Do It” is effectively about suicide, with the singer pleading with the afflicted to not take their own life.  It is sobering, yet ultimately optimistic treatment of such a difficult topic.  Particularly poignant is one of the first lines, “Want to take you outside / Want to show you the sky to remind you why you shouldn’t.”  The song drops you right into the situation, and begs you to interact.

“Don’t Do It” isn’t a pure pop piece like 2008’s “A-Punk”, it’s not baroque pop like 2009’s “While You Wait for the Others” and doesn’t have the tone of the decade-best “All My Friends,” but it stands tall with these songs.  The reflective song and powerful voice push “Don’t Do It” into such elite company, and deep into your mind for months and maybe years to come.  Give it a listen, and enjoy the best fruit of such a good year.

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BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 30-21

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Welcome to Part 2 of the Decade’s Best Albums list.  Check back tomorrow for more of this list!  Thanks again for reading!

30. Microcastle by Deerhunter

It’s always nice to see a blend of noise rock and catchiness.  Here, we get all the squawking feedback and loud thrashing, but it all makes sense.  While especially true in Super Song “Nothing Ever Happened,” most of the songs reach this lovely status.

29. It’s Blitz by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

This can be best described as Karen O’s dance diva album.  Equal parts disco and pure energy, It’s Blitz is a very polished disk, featuring great songs and strong emotion.  While those in “the scene” may argue in favor of their first album, I think this release finds the Yeahs at their highest point.

28. Twin Cinema by The New Pornographers

Bonus points all over the place for being so infectious.  Clean guitars, clear vocals (even if you don’t know what they mean), and brilliant harmonizing make Twin Cinema a fantastic road record.  Turn it up, sing along at the top of your voice, and you’re forced to smile.

27. Everything All the Time by Band of Horses

On paper, this sounds like a generic indie album.  Ringing guitars, emotive lyrics, stuff like that.  But Band of Horses do everything so well.  It’s like a primer for anyone new to the land of indie music.  Of course, having instantly memorable guitar lines (see: “Wicked Gil” and “The Funeral”) helps, too.

26. Chutes Too Narrow by The Shins

Even better than the album that many claimed would “change your life” (Oh Inverted World).  Here, the production values are cranked up, the songwriting varied, and the singing bold and loud.  This is a phenomenal effort across the board, offering personal insight blended with great guitars.

25. Third by Portishead

It’s unfortunate that Portishead waited so long to release their third proper album.  But, the wait revealed something amazing: a band at the same powers (or greater) than when it went on hiatus.  Offering a different direction from their trip-hop 90s albums, Third is an atmospheric masterpiece of minimal electronica.  You will be left haunted and amazed, from start to finish.

24. Hearts of Oak by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

This is a relatively late addition to this list.  Only this month have I had the chance to listen to Ted Leo.  But from first note on, I knew I was in for something special.  Like a more punk-rock REM, or a free-flowing Weezer, Hearts of Oak is charming and powerful.  Tight melodies and pinpoint lyrics make this a rising star in my music collection.

23. Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens

Folk generally leaves me with a bad taste or just generally bored.  But here is an album from a Sufjan Stevens stripped to just his guitar and banjo.  Lightly plucked, Seven Swans is a powerful album, full of personal religious reflections.  It’s rare to see an album this concerned with Biblical ideals outside of ironic or Christian Rock releases.  Stevens weaves powerful songs, unapologetic, even if he can reach a wide audience.

22. Rather Ripped by Sonic Youth

Here lies the best Sonic Youth album this side of Daydream Nation.  It’s a bold statement, but I just love the tunes on Rather Ripped.  They’re faster to get at you than any other Youth release (especially the bright “Reena” and the strong “Incinerate”), but manage to stay with you just like their whole catalogue.  Hear this once for the great highlights.  Hear it over and over for all the details.

21. Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem

It starts off just like “Losing My Edge,” but instantly veers off, creating a new blend of dance and rock, all while considering what it is to become older.  This is the home to the decade’s best song (“All My Friends”), and more memorable moments.  This album is so interesting because of its dual power: all the songs are fantastic, but they work even better together.

BEST SONGS OF THE DECADE: 20-1

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Here concludes my look at the best songs of the decade.  For this edition, I will also have a link to each track on YouTube.  Just click on the last part of each write-up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this version of favoritism.  Please leave some comments about what you view as the best songs.  Also, check in tomorrow to see the first part of my Decade’s Best Albums list.  Thanks for reading!

20. “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” by Daft Punk

Techno is a tough thing for me to get behind.  I appreciate all the rhythm and neat computer-ish music.  But the whole thing just seems so fake and cold to me.  But then there’s Daft Punk.  I can’t help but like them.  They know how to conjure a beat and get your body to move.  “Harder, Better” is the highest point of their work.  Thanks to an amazing vocoder breakdown and a real swagger, even just hearing the song causes heads to bop and feet to tap.  I like to believe that, were I a break dancer I would freak out to this song.

19. “Staralfur” by Sigur Ros

Soundscapes can tend to be a bit boring, generally left for those relaxation mixes to be heard before sleep.  Sigur Ros manages to pull the soundscape into a new land, thanks to innovative instrumentation.  The powerful strings blend with light piano notes and production noises.  Things take off when the voice comes in.  Sigur Ros has a real give in their lead singer: he transforms songs from otherworldly to angelic.  You needn’t know what he’s saying, you just feel it.

18. “Energy” by Apples in Stereo

It’s a pretty instant attraction when this song turns on.  The mood can be completely somber, but then “Energy” turns everything bright.  The bright chords, bright voices, optimistic lyrics and fun tempo all add up to something great.  Where Sigur Ros could bring you to another planet, Apples in Stereo carry you to a better place – a state of personal satisfaction.  “And the world is made of energy / And there’s a lot inside of you, and there’s a lot inside of me.”

17. “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead

It bothers me to leave Radiohead so low on my list.  But such was the nature of song content this decade.  “Pyramid Song” has the distinctive nature of being a decidedly unique song in the Radiohead canon.  Everything feels eerie, right from the start.  Syncopated piano rhythms ride above strange electronic sounds and strings.  Soon enough, the drums kick in, slowly dragging their way in, adding to the strangely swung feel.  The whole thing feels like it’s carrying you off to heaven, or maybe hell.  But then Yorke’s last clear claim rings out in your mind: nothing to fear and nothing to doubt.  Believe in this song.

16. “Lisztomania” by Phoenix

One of the best songs from this year, “Lisztomania” is a pop masterpiece.  Catchy lyrics and bright music carry this song along.  Great guitars and solid bopping music are complimented by a touch of electronica, giving the song an interesting touch.  Really, you could pick “1901” here, too.  Both are great songs, proving Phoenix one of the best from 2009.

15. “Blind” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Antony)

Disco tends to seem cheesy to me.  Maybe it’s the stereotyped guy-in-white-suit thing.  Whatever the case, “Blind” is strangely freed from any sort of bad disco feeling.  Maybe it has to do with Antony’s vocals.  They really steal the show here, transforming the careful emotional classical singer into a dominant power.  I can’t help but feel like dancing through this song and yet feel terrible for doing do.  Perhaps that is where Hercules & Love Affair really succeed.  They get complex emotions to work in music.

14. “Reena” by Sonic Youth

“Reena” is so wonderfully constructed, making it one of my all-time favorite Sonic Youth songs.  First, it grabs you with those ringing guitars.  Then Kim Gordon manages to sing without sounding annoying.  But after all of the introductory “pop song” stuff, they decide to go all Sonic Youth on us.  For my money, it’s one of their best breakdowns since Daydream Nation.  Everything just goes crazy, drums pounding, guitars thrashing, and then Steve Shelley pulls it back together.  Very circular, very awesome.

13. “The Funeral” by Band of Horses

Songs can have some powerful effects, but it’s rare for me to be actually bothered by music.  Band of Horses succeeds here with those haunting, lightly plucked notes that open the song.  Instantly, you realize that this is something very weighty and somber.  Of course, the careful vocals only add to this effect.  “The Funeral” is so powerful that even the loud rocking sections manage to add to the mood.  Repeated listens diminish some of this song’s power, but never leave you feeling comfortable.  Maybe it’s better that way.

12. “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

For all of the loud rock and crazy moments on Fever to Tell, it is the one ballad-like song that we all remember.  Everything about this song gives shivers down the spine.  Those crashing drums, that intro guitar, even the loud rock guitar.  But, of course, it’s Karen O that we all adore here.  Instead of yelling and stalking the stage, she lightly explains her love.  It’s powerful, tragic, and stunning.  This is an impact song.

11. “I’ll Believe in Anything” by Wolf Parade

This song and “Shine a Light” stand tall as the highlights from Wolf Parade’s debut album.  But for some reason, “I’ll Believe in Anything” always seems a step ahead.  I think it has to do with the unashamed emotion that flows in this song.  Seemingly a tale of longing for a lost lover, the whole thing is a bit difficult to dissect.  But it is clear that there is a distinct pain in Spencer Krug’s voice.  The loud crashing music only adds to the raw strength of this song.  By the end of the song, you are also willing to believe, if only for your own happiness.

10. “Clocks” by Coldplay

Coldplay is a very overrated (yes, really) band that garners popular attention because of their refined combination of Radiohead and U2.  They’re big, don’t really have a distinct message, and can generally be described as dull.

So why are they in my top 10?  Because this song is so good.  Perhaps Coldplay was just meant to play this one song and get on with their lives.  I’m a sucker for a good piano song, and this thing is just fantastic.  Chris Martin sings without getting overly annoying, and the looping piano phrase is just brilliant.  And I can’t help but feel taken away when that last phrase hits: “Home, home, where I wanted to go.”

9. “Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives” by Voxtrot

This may be the most low-key song included on my list.  But the whole thing is wonderful rock.  A great, clear voice works well with the instantly appealing guitars and tight drums.  It’s a shame that this band hasn’t really caught on.  With the EP named for this song, they unleashed a set of five amazing tracks.  Every one of them features memorable music, but this is the best of the bunch.

8. “While You Wait for the Others” by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear made a huge leap from enjoyable folk to super songwriters.  The key track off this year’s Veckatimest is a real highlight.  Its atmosphere is powerful and evocative, bringing forth real emotional responses.  Those voices, that guitar… it’s musical brilliance, with just enough muscle to keep it around your brain for months.  This song clearly eclipses all others from this year, constantly echoing in my head.  This is one to remember.

7. “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse

It starts so simply.  Lightly plucked, quietly entered.  And then the self-admissions happen.  And then the world starts to open up with giant faith statements, and comments about the nature of the earth.  Oh, yeah, the guitars kick it up too.  This song is a great way to enter the land of The Moon & Antarctica, it’s familiar and disarming all at the same time.  Of course, this was the one song where we all wondered, “Is this really Modest Mouse?”  It’s unfortunate they haven’t reached a height like this again.

6. “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes

If you don’t like the singing, then I don’t know what you’re doing.  I mean, first there is the lead voice, strong, right on pitch, beats the pants off any American Idol-type pop artist today.  Then there are the backing voices.  Each of these singers could take the lead spot and this song would still be in the top ten.  Instead, they blend and create a harmonious point of glory.  This only functions to add to the amazing musical arrangement, thus creating a powerful, memorable song.

5. “Nothing Ever Happened” by Deerhunter

In an album full of abstract ideas, “Nothing Every Happened” stands out as a beautiful culmination of all the strange noise-rock, but with a very accessible mindset.  Of course, it helps to have one of the best outros of the decade working for you.  Big bold drums give up the limelight for the stunning guitar work.  From the noisy breakdown comes the huge finish: clear, powerful, singular notes.

4. “My Mathematical Mind” by Spoon

It’s sometimes hard to point out what makes Spoon so great.  I guess it’s that they break down their songs into the most minimal of ideas, removing the unimportant fuss.  They kind of make you work for it – fill in the gaps almost.  Here, there’s a sort of self-assured power on display.  I don’t really know why exactly this song strikes so much more than any other Spoon song though.  I think it has to do with the pianos, the ideas (“I’m gonna stop riding the brakes”), and Britt Daniels’ smooth voice.  Or maybe it’s just that this song is really one of the four best of the decade.

3. “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend

The best song of last year is certainly the best pure pop on from the decade.  It’s extremely bright, and from the moment you hear that chord structure, you’re hooked.  For the next two minutes, you have no choice: you bop your head, and you let the music get at you.  Or you watch the video and enjoy even more.

2. “Rebellion (Lies)” by Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire are all about big song and big emotions.  While some may argue that a few of the “Neighborhood” songs are better, I don’t think you can go wrong with “Rebellion (Lies)”  It stands out as such a strong song.  Call-and-response ending in yells of “Lies,” and a string part that acts as primary instrumental melody.  The guitar flourishes and an enraged lead voice closing out the song.  Each of these moments mean so much to those who have heard the song.  If you’re not amongst the believers, let this song prove the might of the Arcade Fire.

1. “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem

So Pitchfork nearly got it right, placing “All My Friends” at second in their decade-list.  But I view them as wrong.

There are so many great songs focusing on emotion, devastating tragedy, and difficult choices.  But it’s rare for a song to confront the idea of growing up like this.  Yeah, many have taken the general “I hope I die before I get old” path, but how many have really taken the idea of age and turned it into a 7-minute opus?

The whole song grapples with life and this transitional idea.  It’s really strange at first, but by the third minute you’re left wondering where else this guy will go.  It’s an intelligent analysis of the self, and James Murphy has some of the best lyrics in recent memory strewn together to make “All My Friends” work.

Of course, without the backing track, his words are just a poetic reflection.  Instead, the base layer of piano kicks the whole thing along, allowing a gradual build across the entire song.  More guitars are added, louder drums, and even more piano.  Everything almost becomes overwhelming, finally ending in the stunning, maybe empowering reflection, “If I could see all my friends tonight.”

James Murphy has penned the greatest song of this decade.  Its musical, lyrical, emotional, and human elements are all greater than any other single track from another source.  His mastery of his craft and an understanding of himself have resulted in a brilliant song that is forever echoing for me.  It is like no other.

Review: Microcastle by Deerhunter

Note: This isn’t going to cover the second disc included in most packages of this Deerhunter release.  That one is called Weird Era Cont. and will be discussed in a future review separately.

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My Bloody Valentine is a pretty tough band to follow.  Their distinctive blend of bleeding guitar and mumbling vocals was all but perfected in Loveless, leaving very little room for error within any simulation.  So instead of taking the direct-copy method, why not throw in a bit of Pavement and Sonic Youth?

It is in the midst of such big names that we find Deerhunter on Microcastle.  My Bloody Valentine is the clear first name to drop: heavily distorted guitars reign supreme on most of the album.  Opener “Cover Me (Slowly)” takes it a step further, offering marble-in-mouth singing to accompany the flowing string work.

But Deerhunter doesn’t play it safe and only mimic My Bloody Valentine.  Instead, they explore the vast world of guitar innovation, following the iconic and rambling tones of Sonic Youth.  “Agoraphobia” and “Twilight at Carbon Lake” both follow chiming guitars as they degrade and evolve into sonic paintings.

While these avant-garde ideas would likely be enough to interest a fan of experimental indie music, Deerhunter does not aim for such a narrow group.  Instead, they turn the musical basis sideways by injecting a dose of pop, like Crooked Rain era Pavement.

Interjected between the screeching guitars and muffled singing is a bright rhythm section, leading each song toward some destination.  Semi-single “Nothing Every Happens” clearly lives this duel life of pop song and art-rock masterpiece.  While a great chunk of the song features distorted guitars, the drums are tight and loud.  Even more so, the bass is distinctive and pops out.

The song even enters a sort of battle section as the guitars become increasingly erratic.  All the while, the drums and bass just keep pushing along.  Finally, a resolution is found as the guitars lock into the rhythm and follow along.  This leads to a great outro with soaring guitars and tight drum fills.  It’s a great balance between the experimental and the popular.

Few faults are to be found in this release, with only a few songs dragging out a bit too long in the middle.  However, the unexpected balance between sonic structures and normal structures draws a great deal of attention to this album.  It’s a fantastic blend.

RATING: 9.6/10