My top songs of 2010

songs of 2010

*Rather than restrict myself to officially-released singles, I opened this list to any song of significance. In other words: no obscure little favourites. Even if they weren’t a single, these were songs that lots of people heard, discussed and recognized as highlights within the artists’ respective work. In the interest of diversity, I also stuck to one song per artist.

Single 25 - Woodhands - Dissembler

A sweet outlier on an otherwise brash and abrasive electro-pop record, “Dissembler” is a small little breakup song whose appeal owes a great deal to the  performance of Maylee Todd. In her lead vocal, backed by Dan Werb’s harmonies, the track transforms from a work of critical self-loathing and angst into a true duality, where we’re never really quite sure whose perspective we’re getting in the song. Like in most breakups, the fault lines blur.

Single 24 - Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

Some Gaslight Anthem songs make their subject matter abundantly clear. Some are more ethereal, as if the band is swimming in a sea of influences and ideas stretching back decades and are uninterested in finding solid ground; they’re content to float, aimless but comfortable. American Slang as as a whole echoes this settled unsettlement—in a wonderful, inviting way—but never better than on the title track, instantly dreamlike and familiar.

Single 23 - Walkmen - Angela Surf City

I’m not quite sure what the deal with Angela is, but as long as she continues to inspire Hamilton Leithauser to belt her complications with the full force of his raspy, throat-tearing voice, I hope she’s around to stay. After a pair of slower, more restrained records, hearing The Walkmen return to some of the barely-contained passion that defined their first couple of records was one of the year’s greatest thrills.

Single 22 - Diamond Rings - Something Else

Toronto’s Diamond Rings is not fancy or showy with his wordplay, but there’s a wonderful precision to it. After all, even artful pop music needs to pop, and that means how it sounds is priority number one. “Something Else,” John O’s fourth single under the Rings name, makes each syllable sound amazing, simply by connecting it so closely to each beat. It’s as punchy as that great post-chorus guitar riff.

Single 21 - Cee-Lo - Fuck You

It’s funny that a song that’s only four months old is already in the third stage of its life (such is the Internet age, I suppose). After the initial euphoric thrill of Cee-Lo’s profane Motown throwback wore off, and subsequent to dealing with the “it was just a novelty” backlash, we’re now onto the “hey, this song is actually really great!” stage, which is a wonderful place for such a long-underrated performer to end up.

Single 20 - Shad - Rose Garden

As hip hop becomes more and more singles-driven, it’s arguably harder than ever for album-driven rappers to reach a mass audience. Shad put out probably the best Canadian hip hop album this year—and easily one of the best North American ones too—and in a fairer world “Rose Garden” would have been a smash. Soulful and clever, its verses mash together Cee-Lo, Glenn Beck, Jack Bauer and “black power naps” before hitting with that memorable, swooning chorus.

Single 19 - Vampire Weekend - Giving up the Gun

If Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut was precise, Contra was downright robotic by comparison. If that sharp focus was a turnoff for some listeners, so be it; it allowed the band to stretch their sound while still holding to a catchy-as-hell centre. “Giving Up the Gun” uses a thundering, almost electronic bass riff and reverb-driven guitars to give the song a completely different sound than the band has worked with previously, but which still feels every bit as alive.

Single 18 - Wolf Parade - Yulia

Despite a couple of Spencer Krug gems, Dan Boecker was the MVP of Expo 86, delivering its most vital, inspired tracks by bringing back the punky edge that kind of went missing on Kissing the Beehive. “Yulia,” an ode to Soviet cosmonauts being shot off into the unknown, is gloriously unkempt, keeping the excitement of the classic “Major Tom” narrative but with its dark edges kept sharp and on-display. Oh and the video is one of 2010’s best, easily.

Single 17 - The Hold Steady - The Weekenders

The drug-using, horse-betting protagonists of Boys and Girls in America’s “Chips Ahoy” aren’t the first Craig Finn characters to reappear a couple of albums after the fact, but their return in “The Weekenders” is compelling for how Finn uses them. His gaze has started to look backwards more than forwards as he gets older, so rather than the in-the-moment thrills of gambling and getting high, we get a nostalgic lament on the terms with which we re-engage our romantic past. And how, in the end, no one really learns the lesson.

Single 16 - Ra Ra Riot - Boy

Yes, Ra Ra Riot play in Vampire Weekend’s sandbox, and don’t really make any bones about that (VW guitarist Rostam Batmanglij even mixed their record). But there’s something about “Boy” that struck me harder than any single track on Contra. Maybe it’s the sheer energy with which Wes Miles attacks that vocal line, or the way in which the bass and guitar riffs just seem to float in-and-out of the mix, giving a wonderfully fluid feeling to the operation.

Single 15 - Katy Perry - Teenage Dream

Last week, Vulture ran a piece comparing and contrasting Katy Perry and Ke$ha, positioning the former as a callback to America’s beautiful, pin-up past and the latter a reflection of the country’s dirty, harsh reality (to reduce the argument quite a bit). It resonated with me, because one of my major problems with Ke$ha is how nihilistic the entire motif is: we’re dirty, we’re crass, let’s fucking party. Is that really the terms on which we’re dancing these days?

Now, I don’t have many good things to say about the direction of Perry’s second album, but I have many wonderful things to say about its title track, a breath of fresh air on the pop charts this year simply because it actually seems to be about something, even if it’s only love. It’s also brilliantly constructed around Perry’s vocal limitations: it keeps much of the melody tightly wound, so that when it reaches the bridge—“Imma get your heart racing in my skintight jeans”—she doesn’t have to break out all that much to sell the hell out of it.

Single 14 - Sleigh Bells - Rill Rill

If you first heard the rolling “Rill Rill” and immediately thought of the Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain,” you’re not alone. The song’s acoustic strums and drum-machine swagger made me immediately remember track one of The Three EPs, famously immortalized in High Fidelity when John Cusack boasts that the song’s playing over the store PA system alone will sell five copies of the record.

I’ve yet to experiment with “Rill Rill,” though I would suspect a similar outcome. Instantly warm and inviting, the song is a joyous mid-album repreive from Treats’ ear-splitting distortion-and-beats cheerleading, while still somehow maintaining the same noisy magic in an entirely different register. There’s so much going on in the track, but none of it is flashy or showing—its simplicity shows a Cusack-like confidence in the power of a good melody.

Single 13 - LCD Soundsystem - All I Want

Though This is Happening lacks a centrepiece as stunning strong as “All My Friends”—and let’s face it, the odds of James Murphy matching THAT masterpiece were slim at best—“All I Want” comes closer than I expected. It also snuck up on me: on first listen, I found its lead guitar and keyboards too overwhelming, hiding the rhythm track that I felt was really the song’s core.

Of course, with time, I realized that the window-dressing was actually the song’s centre: Murphy is playing Bowie a bit here, pulling away from grounded, earth-bound dance music and stretching into the pop stratosphere. The song’s noisy conclusion only further disconnects the listener from its base elements; just like the sputtering longing that’s driving it, the song’s loose, fluttering noise is more powerful than anything simple, organized or primal.

Single 12 - The New Pornograhers - Crash Years

FINALLY. Carl Newman, you are a wonderful mastermind of pop bliss, but while we really enjoyed hearing Neko Case become the voice of your ballads on the last couple of Pornographers records, you have no idea how much we wanted to hear her friggin’ belt that shit out again.

Now, “Crash Years” isn’t totally akin to the unkempt passion of “Letter from an Occupant,” but that’s understandable: the Pornographers are a very different band than they were ten years ago, and in their embrace of nuance and subtlety, a more compelling one too. That “Crash Years” never quite explodes is part of its power; it uses the string section and Kurt Dahle’s inspired drumming to push the song just to the edge, and then lets Case echo into the cliffs below. And as always, she echoes magnificently.

Single 11 - Caribou - Odessa

While there are many great dance songs about breakups, they’re usually blissful or angry, not contemplative. Part of what made Swim such a compelling record is the way that Dan Snaith managed to create a groove-based dance album without abandoning his intelligent, thoughtful approach to lyric-based electronic music.

“Odessa’s” beat is good enough that most probably won’t even pay attention to the lyrics, but when you dive into his to the edge-of-the-end words, the song’s twitchy, tightly-wound spiraling bassline hits even harder. When I interviewed Snaith earlier this year, he explained that the story is inspired by a real-life couple, and you can hear that intimacy in the way its protagonist twists and turns over how to regretfully bring this part of her life to a close.

Single 10 - Ted Leo - Bottled in Cork

I love a good fakeout, and the opening 25 seconds of “Bottled in Cork” more than fits the bill: it makes it sound like we’re getting another raw, punky, political Ted Leo track before it cuts out and the distortion is replaced by some of the warmest acoustic guitars to be found in 2010.

What follows is the year’s best tourist’s tale, a song for thirty-somethings trying to play younger games; “A loner in a world full of kids, egos and ids,” as he puts it. The vocal mix is maybe the song’s smartest move; by separating the lines, it almost creates a call-and-answer, an internal debate over one’s changing self-perception as we bounce across Europe. And it all closes with that wonderful refrain that everyone at Matador 21 in Vegas—where this song kept reappearing all weekend long—couldn’t stop humming: “Tell the bartender, I think I’m falling in love.” (The song’s video is pretty great too, but won’t play embedded—view it here.)

Single 9 - Sufjan Stevens - Impossible Soul

Is it unfair to consider a 25-minute song for this list? Maybe. There’s no question that “Impossible Soul’s” length gives it an extra heft by default compared to many of the other “best of 2010” contenders. Then again, are any of these other artists even attempting—let alone pulling off—a multi-part electronic song suite that’s longer than most EPs? Didn’t think so.

“Impossible Soul” is not an easy listen, even if I was initially impressed by how easy its individual parts go down. But with time, and patience, it reveals itself as a culmination of a creative process Stevens began with Illinois. That album was driven equally by his sonic ambition and his poetic, intimate lyricism, but Stevens seems to have spent the subsequent years figuring out whether the former alone is enough to make a compelling artistic vision. “Impossible Soul” is about as glorious as a “yes” can sound.

Single 8 - Yeasayer - ONE

The smallest creative decisions can transform a good song into a great one. The best song on Yeasayer’s complicated Odd Blood, “O.N.E.” would be one of the year’s strongest dance songs even if it ended three quarters of the way through. It’s playful, interesting and catchy, with memorable hooks that exist side-by-side with a wonderfully weird bed of sounds underneath (it’s almost Phil Collins-esque in its rhythmic choices—and that’s a compliment).

But then, in the final chorus, Anand Wilder’s voice is suddenly joined by Charles Keating, the band’s other lead vocalist. The counter-melody—“And it feels like being tranquilized, I know that separation kills us so”—is so mind-numbingly perfect that it’s amazing that the band resisted the urge to build an entire song around it. But that’s what makes “O.N.E.” so great: dance music should blow your mind and still leave you wanting so much more.

(I realized after posting this that the video edit of the song uses my favourite part twice; to quote The Simpsons, “You got greedy, Martin.” Here’s the original too.)

Single 7 - Surfer Blood - Swim

A song that bridged the decade split—some, like Pitchfork, were ahead of the curve enough to feature it last year, while the rest of us caught-up on re-release—“Swim” is something special despite, well, not being all that special on the surface. It’s a power pop song with a very simple chord progression and a nicely-reverberated vocal line. Ho-hum?

Hardly. Check out the bridge break, a wonderful cool-down before diving back into the fuzzed-up riffage that drives the song. And don’t forget the single guitar note, playing during the chorus, that is almost like a clarion call to jump up and down and annoy your neighbours below. And that vocal? It’s so barely constrained, so top-of-the-lungs, so gloriously unsunstainable that you’re almost relieved when the song ends after three short minutes (and that it gets a nice break in the middle).

Single 6 - The National - Terrible Love

It took The National five years to find a song worthy of replacing “Mr. November” as the climatic close of their live set. And just like how “Mr. November” summed up everything wonderful about The National circa Alligator, the magnificent “Terrible Love” is like a four-minute love letter from one of America’s greatest bands in the here-and-now: every bit as passionate as they were when you first met them, but in a more mature, compelling place.

The song exists in two recorded versions. The album take surprised me with its restraint but I’ve grown quite fond of it over time, whereas the newly-released “Alternate Take” on High Violet’s expanded edition nobly tries to be an epic and doesn’t quite hit the mark. No, the song’s definitive version is still live, where the band makes the song sound like the most indestructible and most the breakable thing ever, both at the same time.

Single 5 - Kanye West - Power

For each of his albums, Kanye West has released two advance singles. The poppier, more accessible track comes second, preceded by something more hip hop, but also more personal. It’s generally on the first single that West lays out his themes for the record or, at the very least, the direction his bravado is going to be pointing this time around. But with all eyes on West following Taylor-gate, there has probably never been another time in his career—except maybe with “Through the Wire”—when there was more at stake with a lead single.

“Power” didn’t become a radio hit, and it’s hardly the most boundary-pushing track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But it’s a showstopper—a clarion call that West is back, West means business, and that he can bash beats with the best of them. Forget “Monster”; the album’s real behemoth is that thundering drum line, matched perfectly with choirs, hand-claps and that killer King Crimson sample. I’m still not quite sure what he has against SNL—considering he even performed the song on the show—but the bottom line is that his opening boast is right on the money: this is superhero theme music.

Single 4 - Beach House - Zebra

Pretty and powerful isn’t the easiest combination to pull off, especially when your canvas of choice is synth-pop. But “Zebra” sounds like a creation from another planet, where such a combination comes simple, effortless. With a two-note guitar pattern guiding the way, it takes off into the stratosphere with aits beautiful, haunting melody.

It’s arguable whether the recorded version of “Zebra” is even the song’s definitive version—there’s a case to be made for the wonderful PS22 Chorus on that one—but it’s Victoria Legrand’s performance that makes it so spectacular. Her voice sounds ancient and knowing, making the song’s statements sound more like profound proclamations. The song would still be pretty and powerful without her, but she makes it sound wise.

Single 3 - Arcade Fire - Sprawl II

I’d been following Arcade Fire’s setlists on their July tour, checking out what new songs from their forthcoming album they were test-driving. They played most of The Suburbs’ standouts, so it was a real shock when I finally got the album and I discovered “Sprawl II,” which on a single listen was easily the greatest song on an album of pretty great songs. Why the hell hadn’t the band played it yet?

I got to see the first ever performance of “Sprawl II” a week later at Montreal’s Osheaga festival. Since then, I’ve watched countless videos of the song live, and the band always struggles with it at first—it’s such a shift in sound for them, it’s tough to fill a live mix with synths, and Regine’s vocal is more impassioned than precise, which can leave things a bit off at first. But every time, the song suddenly finds its bearings halfway through, as if the band rediscovers what a magical piece of work they’re playing. Win sometimes tries to steal a kiss from his wife when it’s over; a fair gesture when she’s spent the entire song stealing the hearts of everyone singing along.

Single 2 - Superchunk - Digging for Something

I’m not sure whether Carl Wilson was the first to compare/contrast the Pavement reunion this year with the return of Superchunk, but his positioning of the latter as the “anti-slacker” interpretation of 1990s indie rock is the one I recall. And he’s got a point: even with Pavement having been knighted as the Gen-X overlords of taste and merit, there was something a bit soulless about their whole reunion gig, as great as it was to hear those songs again (and I say this as someone who saw them twice).

In contrast, Superchunk not only attacked 2010 with a bite of joy in their teeth, but with a great record of new material that was far better than it needed to be to generate goodwill. “Digging for Something” could coast on its chunky guitars and hummable melody, but it ends up the year’s greatest party song because it’s anxious as hell. These characters are desperately seeking something to crash into, self-aware that there’s more to a Saturday night’s quest than merely looking for a good time. The need for feeling and the desperation to get it—”I don’t know how to dance this slow but I can try,” one of my favourite lyrics of the year— recalls Springsteen 30 years earlier, so sure there’s something happening somewhere. We just haven’t quite figured out where that is yet.

Single 1 - Robyn - Dancing on my Own

Of course pop music eats itself.

That’s to be expected in a genre designed to appeal to our base rather than our brains, where cold, precise science can produce Pavlovian dance moves to keep us satisfied. Maybe it’s always been this way, but for some reason pop music seemed more cynical than usual this year. It’s no coincidence that so many of this year’s biggest pop hits sound the same. Several of them—“Tik Tok,” “California Gurls,” “Dynamite”—were written by one person, and share similar melodies and beats. “Dynamite” dines on the same dance-hall trick as “Only Girl in the World” and “We R Who We R,” pulling out the beat in the first half of the chorus to get the club crowd ramped up and desperate for its return. In 2010, it was as if pop music’s curves, points and edges were been feasted upon, leaving only a flat, boring landscape of noise left behind.

Fitting that Ke$ha’s year-end cash-in record is called Cannibal.

We’re never going to rid our lives of of pop music, nor would we ever want to. Especially in the Internet age, we’re desperate for shared experience, something universally palatable that we can discuss, dance and dissent over. But is it wrong for us to demand something with a fucking heartbeat behind it? To ask for a record that gives us something to dance about rather than just something to dance to? To hear something human in the age of pop machines?

That it was Robyn who answered this call is a bit ironic, considering that one of her best songs—“Fembot”—is explicitly about being a robot. But her robots have feeling. Over the course of three mini-albums, the Swedish singer became pop music’s conscience this year, a regular reminder of what the genre can and should be. In particular, her trifecta of stunningly-great singles—“Dancing on my Own,” “Hang with Me” and “Indestructible”—made for the year’s best pop narrative, a journey from heartbreak through friendship and then closing with the sort of hardened redemption that one wishes all great love affairs could inspire.

But the heartbreak hit hardest. “Dancing on my Own” is so desperate that it almost can’t contain itself. Its noise and fury do their best to mask the shattered self screaming on the inside, but ultimately fail miserably. There’s a human being beneath that synth line and that stunning chorus, dancing not because she wants to; at her breaking point, it’s all she has left. “Dancing on my Own” is proof that real emotion can’t be contained by a beat and a bassline, but also a welcome reminder that those same tools that flatten the pop landscape can also bring it to life. And that’s why it towards over the pop landscape—nay, music landscape—of 2010.

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