Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Top 50 Songs of 2010

2010 was quite a year. It was a rebirth, a reaffirmation of my love of music (and writing about it, and taking pictures of it). I still feel as if I'm catching up, but the end of the year provided a great opportunity to revisit what I loved and seek out what I missed.

This is a list of the songs that mattered to me. Please share your own in the comments.

Update: I've received a copyright notice from Google, so I'm going to pull the download link. Sorry.

50. Magda - "Get Down Goblin"

Magda's debut full-length, From the Fallen Page, was a long time coming, but she had already built a reputation with her staggering mix, She's A Dancing Machine, and her impressive DJ sets as part of the Minus family. Although Page didn't quite live up to my expectations, it was still a bold statement, encapsulating Magda's dark, noir aesthetic. And, if nothing else, it gave her an excuse to play in the States, which is always a treat.

49. Delorean - "Real Love"

Spain's Delorean brought their festive indie pop to the last Jelly Pool Party show of the summer (photos to come), and I was quickly taken by their high energy and churning compositions. The band draws from an eclectic range of influences, falling somewhere between indie pop and dance music. "Real Love," is from their 2010 release Subiza, which is actually the band's third album, but first to see worldwide release. They've also remixed the likes of the xx and Franz Ferdinand, proving Delorean is quite adept in the studio, as well as on stage.

48. Azure Ray - "Don't Leave My Mind"

Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink returned after a jaw-dropping seven years since their last release as Azure Ray (I was 15 when 2003's Hold On Love came out, sheesh). Of course, they've both been very active with their solo projects, as well as Fink's Art in Manila. But it's comforting to see them back together, and while Drawing Down the Moon was mostly a retread of what's come before, Azure Ray still does languid pop better than just about anyone.

47. Broken Social Scene - "World Sick"

Alas, I fear the golden age of BSS is over. They were, at one point, my favorite band, on the strength of their self-titled album and the incredible You Forget It In People. But I can't say I listened much to their latest effort, Forgiveness Rock Record, as it didn't strike the same chord. That said, early single "World Sick" is a track where you really felt the full impact of their big lineup. Kevin Drew's the ringleader, channeling frustrations into rock cartharsis, the best kind.

46. Scuba - "Before"

Scuba, a.k.a. Paul Rose, head of Hotflush Recordings, put out an album called Triangulation, which sticks to three general elements, as its name suggests. There's the clattering beats, the bass groove, and then something that I'd describe as "atmosphere." Often, it's negative space and static, adding to the austerity of the music. But in "Before," Rose adds a splash of soul, sampling a woman's voice, and letting in some light.

45. Stereolab - "Everybody's Weird Except Me"

Sadly, Stereolab went on hiatus two years ago, but they accumulated enough material during the sessions for Chemical Chords that they were able to release another album. It was named Not Music, perhaps a play on the group's experimental leanings, which sometimes resemble avant garde noise, rather than traditional pop songs. But not so with "Everybody's Weird Except Me," a lovely track with Laetitia Sadier's pleasant vocals over a playful beat. Stereolab has been missed, but I don't think we've heard the last of them.

44. Lali Puna - "Remember"

How fitting that Lali Puna follows Stereoleb - the two bands have much in common, in particular a penchant for electronic tinkering and an alluring female lead. Lali adds more German influences (they're signed to Berlin label Morr Music, for one), adopting a style that's slightly more mechanical. But Valerie Trebeljahr's voice keeps things emotionally anchored, and the instruments tend to complement her well. It was a treat to see the band release their first album, Our Inventions, in six years. Now, we just need a U.S. tour.

43. Ellen Allien - "Our Utopie"

Ellen Allien, head of the Berlin techno label BPitch Control, is one of the busiest musicians out there. She's released seven albums in the last nine years, an amazing collaboration with Apparat, eight official mixes, and played hundreds of sets. What's more, she's evolved on each original release. "Our Utopie," the chiming opener of her newest album Dust, promises more pop-oriented structure, and the album has more prominent vocals and even some guitars. It wasn't her best work, but Dust was a reminder of how innovative she is.

42. Booka Shade - "Teenage Spaceman"

Booka Shade's show at Music Hall reaffirmed their dominance of the live setting. While most electronic artists bring a mixer and two turntables (or a laptop) and leave it at that, Arno and Walter bring a piles of equipment, which translates into a massive experience. I do miss their subtler days (Movements is a classic), but as their newest album More! suggests, they've embraced a denser style. The tension between evolving and staying true to what made you great is a tricky one, and Booka haven't quite found the perfect balance, but no doubt they'll be back.

41. jj - "I'm The One / Money On My Mind"

Swedish duo jj borrow liberally. They've got the Balearic pop of their countrymen down, with a tinge of psych. They've covered T.I. and sampled Lil' Wayne, adding gleefully obscene lyrics and bubbling synth to their repertoire. "I'm The One / Money On My Mind" takes the xx's "Intro," a wordless track ripe for additions, and inserts Elin Kastlander's woozy voice. It's not nearly as groundbreaking as "Ecstasy," but I'm eager to hear what they come up with next.

40. Matthew Dear - "Little People (Black City)"

Ghostly's Matthew Dear has always had a fluid persona. Under the guise Audion, he creates relentless house; as False, he explores a more minimal style. But fittingly, his recordings under his given name are more man than machine, as Dear's distinct baritone injects a very human element into the music. Black City, his latest release, saw his brand of electronic pop get even weirder, and the pseudo title track is a nine-minute opus that takes the listener on a panoramic journey. Crazy stuff.

39. Baths - "Hall"

Will Wiesenfeld is an energetic dude. When he played Mercury Lounge, the little venue barely contained his boisterous, stuttering electropop. Then, he came back for CMJ and soldiered through six sets, and while his voice was giving out on the final night, his enthusiasm didn't seem dampened. "Hall" is a good summation of his music, as Wiesenfeld elongates the title into a six-syllable phrase, his falsetto floating above a sea of bubbling percussion and squealing synths.

38. Teen Daze - "Saviour"

Teen Daze, the unnamed young man from Vancouver, made quite an impression during the waning hours of CMJ. In the chilly confines of Glasslands, his sunny beats provided a respite, a salve for aching legs. Daze is quite prolific, just recently releasing another batch of songs, and remixing kindred spirits like Washed Out, Yeasayer and Local Natives. There's something exhilarating about his brand of electronic music - "Saviour" is a sweeping testament to that.

37. Azari & III - "Reckless (With Your Love) (Tensnake Remix)"

It's surprising that mysterious duo Azari & III have been around for a year or so. They have a timeless house sound, and while "Reckless (With Your Love)" originally came out in 2009, it's already become a bit of a classic. Hamburg's Tensnake, himself a rising star, gives the track a masterful rework, shaping it into a seven-minute epic. Those vocals! Those drums! Also check out Azari's newest single, "Indigo."

36. Basia Bulat - “Heart Of My Own”

Canadian songstress Basia Bulat has a hell of a voice - it has a rich, soulful quality that's overpowers many of her peers. At the St. Vincent show in Central Park over the summer, I'd argue that she upstaged the top of the bill, playing three instruments and sounding amazing. It's a shame that so many of her Canadian contemporaries get such a larger chunk of the spotlight, because Bulat might be one of her country's best kept secrets.

35. Deerhunter - "Helicopter"

Bradford Cox and company serenade us with "Helicopter," a lullaby-soft track covered in a shimmering haze. (The anti-Bloc Party?) Cox's earnest vocals are emphasized with guitars and drum clashes, but the instruments never overpower his delivery. I can't say I listened to the rest of Halcyon Digest much, but if it sounds like this, I'm there. Seriously, guy is adorable - even Sony Music apologized to him for taking down his mixtapes.

34. Braids - “Lemonade”

Kanine Records has to be one of the most underrated imprints out there. Their current roster has the likes of Surfer Blood, the Depreciation Guild and D.I.Y. favorites Eternal Summers and Dream Diary. They put out the debut of a little band called Grizzly Bear, too. The hits continue with Canada's Braids, a delightful indie pop group with an atmospheric swirler, building to a crescendo before dissipating into a watery finish. Beautiful.

33. Twin Sister - “Lady Daydream”

Twin Sister's beguiling pop has only surfaced through a couple EPs in the band's two-year existence, reflective of their slow-burning aesthetic. Singer Andrea Estella has an understated, lovely voice, the sort that you want to spend time with, and "Lady Daydream" is the ideal environment to do just that. This is defifnitely a band I want to see in 2011, but until then, be sure to check out their Daytrotter Session or this great live footage.

32. Hot Chip - “I Feel Better”

Nerdy gearheads Hot Chip have been a fixture in the DFA-led electro revival for years, and while their latest album, One Life Stand, didn't have the surefire hits of past efforts, it cemented their reputation as emotionally nuanced songwriters. "I Feel Better" is a showcase for Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard's dramatic vocal interplay, one fragile and yearning, one mournful and dour. But as its hilarious music video demonstrates, the band hasn't lost its sense of humor.

31. Serena-Maneesh - "I Just Want To See Your Face"

I winched during the first minute of this song, but then about a minute in, things got hooky, jangly even. Above the fuzz and lacerating feedback is a pristine pop song, although I'm not entirely sure who's singing - frontman Emil Nikolaisen is the only one credited with vocals from what I've read. Anyhow, the track comes from the imposingly titled Serena-Maneesh: Abyss in B Minor, which follows the band's suberb self-titled debut. Listening to this song is comparable to the first time I heard Loveless - and I can think of no higher musical praise.

30. Beach Fossils - "Daydream"

Mining the same territory as Real Estate and the like, the Brooklyn group Beach Fossils is distinguished by distance. Maybe it's the reverb, but their songs have a certain detachment, as if they really are buried in the sand, a memory of a long-gone summer. (Yes, there are still beaches in winter, but just work with me on this one.) On "Daydream," Dustin Payseur's voice and that insistent riff are just marvelous.

29. Taras van de Voorde - "1998"

In "1998," Bill Clinton was president and we had a surplus. Still, things weren't nearly as interesting as this! Taras van de Voorde, from the Netherlands, takes us on an exhilarating ride with his tribute to the year, breaking it down and building it up over the course of a seven minutes. The track was a hit over at RA, which is where I first heard it, spawning a bunch of remixes. But as with Coke and the Gap, the best idea was the first one.

28. Efdemin - "Night Train"

Detroit gets all the credit. Although the Motor City is celebrated as the birthplace techno, Chicago house also had a huge influence on the development of electronic music. Efdemin does well to name-check the Windy City on his latest album, a meticulous piece of work. Seeing Efdemin at Mister Saturday Night was a real treat, and it proved that he's just as good at commanding a dance floor. This is one of the best electronic albums of the year, no doubt.

27. James Blake - “CMYK”

British wunderkind James Blake's been on many a list at the end of this year, and it's easy to see the crossover appeal. His naked cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love" is something special, but he's even more impressive within the context of his own creations. "CMYK" is choral dubstep, as Blake samples a menagerie of voices, constructing something familiar, yet completely novel. With a full-length in the works for Feb. 7, next year looks to be even better for Mr. Blake.

26. Toro Y Moi - "Blessa"

A couple years back, my friend Andy mentioned that his friend Chaz was getting pretty big. I unfortunately didn't check it out, but now, he's huge. This year, Toro Y Moi (with Andy drumming) opened for Caribou and Phoenix, and the band's next album, Under The Pine, is looking to be one of the larger releases of 2011. But before we get ahead of ourselves, before that whole "chillwave" thing, these are really good songs. "Blessa" is a woozy tribute to bedroom melodies, an intimate, kaleidescope slice of pop.

25. Pantha Du Prince - “The Splendour”

One of my year's regrets is missing Pantha Du Prince's set before Blonde Redhead at Webster Hall. This is, after all, the man who made "Saturn Strobe," one of the most sublime electronic tracks that I've ever heard. Although Black Noise doesn't have anything to that magnitude, it's still a stately, elegant record, with gems like "The Splendour." Although some might be more excited by the appearance of Panda Bear on "Stick By My Side," for me, less is more.

24. Four Tet - “Angel Echoes”

The first track off Kieran Hebden's There Is Love In You is gorgeous. Beginning with a steady clink, it slowly unspools a wordless vocal sample that swoons and dips, harmonizing with itself.  It might be the most straightforward, prettiest composition of Hebden's long and varied career, which has seen collaborations with Burial and the late Steve Reid. But after five years since his last solo full length (2005's great Everything Ecstatic), it was a delight to finally hear him on his own.

23. Beach House - “Norway”

With Teen Dream, Beach House emerged from a cocoon of reverb and crafted something incredibly lush. I remember hearing Norway over a year ago and being struck by how immediate Victoria Legrand's voice sounded, as if the past two albums had been a chance for it to thaw. As the song goes, "We were sleeping 'till/You came along/With your tiny heart/You let us in the wooden house/To share in all the wealth."

22. Belle and Sebastian - “I Want The World To Stop"

It shames to say that I never really got into Belle and Sebastian. I definitely respected them, but was always more partial to their countrymen, Camera Obscura or the amazing, underrated Delgados. But after a magnificent show at the Waterfront, I gave their newest album, Write About Love, a try, and was impressed. This is a more confident, seasoned band - melodic but not merely twee, with lusher instrumentation and vocal acrobatics. Stewart Murdoch and the gang have a great voices.

21. Stars - "Fixed"

As with Broken Social Scene, my attachment to Stars has waned somewhat in recent years. But BSS doesn't have Amy Milan, at least not as a regular, and she still has the most swoon-inducing voice in indie pop. Seeing the band play for two hours in September was amazing, and a reminder of how much I adore their back catalogue. "Fixed" is the full-blast single of The Five Ghosts, the "Take Me To the Riot" or "Ageless Beauty" (still my favorite Stars song) of the album. In other words, exhilarating stuff.

20. Lindstrøm & Christabelle - "Can't Stop"

Although it's the first time Christabelle has been credited, the singer's been collaborating with Norwegian disco maestro Lindstrøm for years. The two had a modest hit with "Lovesick," but it's "Can't Stop"  that really takes it for me. Christabelle's breathy voice comes off  really strong here, and the percussion and synth buildup are fantastic. As Gawker puts it, this song is for "dancing; arguing with the bartender about how expensive the drinks are after dancing; dancing more." Amen.

19. Jamie xx - "Far Nearer"

The xx's album was by far my favorite of 2009, and hopefully the next year will bring a second one. In the mean time, Jamie Smith, whom I had the huge pleasure of interviewing, released a solo cut, which takes things in a dubstep direction. No word on whether he'll release a full album or just a single or two, but "Far Nearer" was a sensation when it debuted on the radio. I can't think of many bands that the internet would freak out about if such a thing happened, but the xx definitely occupy the highest echelon, which is well deserved. In other Jamie business, he DJed in New York and at the Boiler Room. Busy man!

18. The Pipettes - “Stop The Music (Justus Köhncke Remix)”

It's difficult to continue when two-thirds of your singers quit. But that's what happened to the Pipettes, who hit it big with their retro debut, only to see Rose Elinor Dougall and Rebecca "RiotBecki" Stephens quit for solo careers. After the turmoil, the band went more futuristic on its sophomore effort, and while the results were mixed, a standout was single "Stop the Music" - particularly Kompakt man Justus Köhncke's sprawling rework. The pulsing synth and the voice of Gwenno (or is it her sister Ani?) go down smoothly.

17. Lucky Soul - "White Russian Doll"

It's pretty amazing - Lucky Soul cram more stuff in two-and-a-half minutes than most bands do in twice the time. "White Russian Doll" is a gallopping single, a bold new step for a band that does retro better than so many (sorry, Pipettes). Much credit to Frank at chromewaves for first introducing me, and letting me know that they had a new release. So good. Now then, why aren't these guys huge yet?

16. The Radio Dept. - "Heaven's On Fire"

"Heaven's On Fire" begins with a question: "People see rock and roll as youth culture, and when youth culture gets monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?" At first it seems rhetoric, but then the voice answers, "I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture." They're fightin' words, but the subsequent song is sunny, hooky, and great, with no hints of violence. There are even trumpets! So, perhaps it's not the revolution that we dream of (and, anyhow, the internet is freeing the music industry from capitalism), but if nothing else, the Radio Dept. keep us young at heart.

15. Crystal Castles - “Celestica”

Crystal Castles is a band that people love to hate. The obnoxious strobe lights, the 8-bit squelches, the copyright disputes - the Toronto duo has had a rough time. Still, they managed to come up with one of the purest three-and-a-half minutes of electropop this year, a pristine piece that's as precise as singer Alex Glass's mascara. But for a band known for is icy demeanor, there's some vulnerability here, some naked uncertainty under the synth crescendos: "When it's cold outside, hold me/Don't hold me."

14. Yeasayer - "Madder Red"

Back during Yeasayer's All Hour Cymbals era, there was a song called "2080," which was tremendous. "Madder Red," from Odd Blood, is a proud successor to that ambitious, harmonious effort, an absolute triumph. Singer Chris Keating is an able storyteller, weaving apologies into the chorus, while his bandmates provide a stunning accompaniment. As they proved at Governors Island, this band is as huge as the venues that they play.

13. Phantogram - “Mouthful of Diamonds”

I heard this song at Mercury Lounge, and scrambled to jot down the lyrics and look it up afterwards. Thankfully, I managed to track down Phantogram, which is Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter from upstate New York. For a just duo, they make pretty intricate music, and when Barthel's voice goes high on the chorus, it's spectacular. It's a pity that the rest of the album isn't as good - for one thing, Barthel doesn't sing on all the songs - but equaling this one's a tall order.

12. Robyn - “Dancing On My Own”

Robyn had a massive year, cementing her status as a worldwide pop star with the three-part release of Body Talk, along with a huge local show in November and two at Webster Hall in August. (She'll be performing at Radio City Music Hall in February.) The centerpiece of her new record is the "Dancing On My Own," an ode to unrequited love. Almost a minute in, the chorus hits and Robyn's impressive pipes take over, but there's still that emotional vulnerability. In an age of robotic pop stars, Robyn's real.

Those Brits sure know how to pick their pop stars. There's Lily Allen, Kate Nash (who also released an album this year, which I should check out) and now Katy B, an absurdly young South London gal with a big voice. She has a refreshing overlap of genres, mining pop and hip-hop - some even say there's dubstep elements, but not too sure about that one. Hopefully it's a sign of bigger things to come (and U.S. tours!).

10. Duck Sauce - “Barbra Streisand”

It's not just what you do - it's who you know. And Duck Sauce, the partnership of Armand Van Helden and A-Trak, know a lot of people. They enlisted everyone from Ezra Koenig to Chromeo to the Roots for a video that played like a who's who of independent music. It was also a celebration of New York - of its vibrancy, its culture and first and foremost, its people. Call me biased, but we are the best city in the world for a reason. As for the song itself, it's built around a sample of Boney M's "Gotta Go Home," specifically the opening riff and the "Oooh"-ing chorus, with the addition of the absurd, but somehow completely appropriate "Barbra Streisand" refrain. Amazing.

9. Sleigh Bells - “Rill Rill”

Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller are hardly subtle. Most of Treats is bombastic, blistering noise, likely to rupture your eardrums. But then there's Krauss' voice, a saccharine, at times childish element that made you wonder what would happen if the duo ever made a pure pop song. Well, "Rill Rill" is that song - so different from everything else on the album, but at the same time the perfect complement. Everything slows down, and Krauss takes over, her overdubbed voice dripping over the languid beats like an exquisite honey. The lyrics, as usual, are both nonsensical ("You are the river flow/And we can never know/We're just a weatherman/You make the wind blow") and totally spot-on.

8. Tennis - “Marathon”

Tennis blew into the blogosphere like a summer breeze, dancing through the waves. Their story's been told to death, but it bears repeating: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley spent seven months sailing, escaping the limitations of modern life in a way most of us can only dream of. With that in mind, their music is conceptual, charting the course of their journeys, but on its most primal level, the songs are dreams of sunnier days and happier people. "Marathon" is the center of that desire, as Moore's buoyant voice floating in splashes of reverb and synth, slashes of guitar breaking like waves. Their upcoming full-length, Cape Dory, is already sounding like one of the best albums of 2011.

7. Cults - “Go Outside”

How the industry has accelerated. Cults released "Go Outside" in March, accolades followed, and then by the end of the year they had been scooped up by Columbia, Sony Music's imprint that seems to specialize in poaching young talent. Still, one good song is sometimes all it takes, and "Go Outside," is spectacular. Madeline Follin's voice goes up for miles, while the signature harpsichord adds a certain delicacy.  But Cults looks to be more than just a buzz band - as their #Offline set demonstrated, there's a lot more going on here than just a couple good singles. Their debut album, which should arrive in the spring, is one of my most anticipated releases.

6. The National - “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

The National is one of the biggest bands in the planet right now, sitting down with the New York Times Magazine and hitting No. 3 on the Billboard charts. It's a stunning ascension, and one that's been truly hard-earned and well-deserved. Boxer was an obsessive listen for the better part of two years for me, and it's still a thrill. High Violet didn't resound quite as strongly, but "Bloodbuzz Ohio" easily captures the stately heights of past works, from the instant the drumsticks flick to open the song. Matt Berninger's baritone is one of the most remarkable instruments in music right now.

5. Caribou - "Odessa"

Dan Snaith chronicles the decay of a relationship on "Odessa," the opener of his marvelous album Swim. It's subversive stuff, a big departure from the adorations on Andorra, with a squelching beat and Snaith's solemn voice. He calls the album an effort to create "liquid dance music," and there's a distinct fluidity in the way the disparate instruments collide on "Odessa," fusing rather than breaking or bouncing. There's also a very clear narrative here ("Taking her kids/Driving away/Turning 'round the life she let him siphon away"), but it's unclear if Snaith is a sympathetic ear, or the jealous lover. It's that ambiguity that makes the song so gripping.

4. Mount Kimbie - “Would Know”

During their October performance at the Bunker, Dominic Maker and Kai Campos, better known as Mount Kimbie, did something you're never supposed to do during DJ sets: In front of the packed crowd, they stopped and allowed for applause. Generally when an electronic artist is billed as "live," they're just playing their own songs off a laptop or, perhaps, a sampler (Booka Shade's an exception). But Kimbie played a real set, resembling more of a band than two producers. One of them even plucked a guitar! The audience loved it, and so did I - Crooks & Lovers grew to be one of my favorite releases in the final months of the year. "Would Know," with its skittering synths, generous bassline and cryptic vocals, is dubstep for the future.

3. Janelle Monáe - “Tightrope (ft. Big Boi)”

Janelle Monáe is amazing. Not only did she put out two of the most striking singles of the year ("Tightrope" and "Cold War"), her opus The Archandroid almost single-handedly argued for the relevance of the album. Spanning 18 tracks and over 68 minutes, it's roughly twice as long as everyone else's release, but despite the length, it's a never boring. Likewise on "Tightrope," with a flexing beat that echoes Monáe's lithe dance moves and features, as she puts it, "the funkiest horn section in Metropolis." And then there's that voice, flowing and contracting, moving like no one else.

2. School of Seven Bells - "Bye Bye Bye"

Buried towards the end of Disconnect From Desire, "Bye Bye Bye" is quintessential Bells, a churning pop song with dramatic heights and the Deheza twin's crystalline vocals. Alas, the harmonizing is only on record now, with Claudia's departure from the band in October (she's the one with longer hair), but they're soldiering on as a duo. With such sad news, the song's lyrics take on even more meaning: "Into the wind back to the day we met where you'll settle into/A standing pile of stones I'll skip across that ocean we knew/One by one till there's nothing left of you."

1. Wild Nothing - “Live In Dreams”

There was no doubt that Wild Nothing was favorite band this year - I listened to Gemini far more than any other album. It was more decision of whether to feature "Live In Dreams," "Summer Holiday" or "Chinatown," as each of those songs are individually so amazing. I ended up going with the album's nostalgic opener, which epitomizes a lot of what I liked this year. From its slow fade in, there's a delicacy to the music and Jack Tatum's unapologetic romanticism that's hard to resist. The shoegaze and '80s influences are well documented, and while it sounds as if it's from another era, its emotions are very much those from 2010.


Sue said...

Roland, Great work. If possible someday it would be nice if a small sample of the song could be included to get a sense of what it is like.

indie bands matt said...

Nice list... The National and Caribou are tops.

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