Around this time of year, everyone puts out their “Best of 2010” lists. There’s nothing wrong with this practice exactly. It’s a good way of looking back at the past year of excitement, entertainment, and events, but I always feel like it misses something, particularly with respect to music. If you’re anything like me, the newest and best additions to your music collection did not all come from 2010. There’s something so great about discovering a brilliant song written anywhere from a few years ago to a few decades ago that is equal to the novelty of any new release. With that spirit in mind, here is a list of the top ten songs I discovered this past year, regardless of when they came out.
1. Cee Lo Green – Fuck You!
“Baby I’m sorry, I can’t afford a Ferrari, but that don’t mean I can’t get you there. I guess he’s an XBOX, and I’m more Atari, but the way you play your game aint fair.”
Profanity does not greatness make. It’s too easy to either embrace or dismiss this song simply because it uses some of the sharper colors in our linguistic crayon box. Well, don’t miss the forest for the trees here. Amid the liberal use of the words “fuck” and “shit” lies a fun, catchy tune, that makes you want to get out and dance as soon as you hear the first few beats. Cee Lo Green has an amazing voice, and the way he manages to punctuate each small bit of the chorus (in line with the official title of the song) makes this achievement in music truly his own. It also shows how this would be (and has been) a much more meager offering in the hands of another artist. Having cut my musical teeth on The Temptations growing up, the bopping Motown feel of the song really grabbed me, and didn’t let go. If you can listen to this tune and avoid nodding your head or tapping your feet along to the music, you’re a stronger man than I. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t give some attention to the lyrics. Certain folks may object to the salty language used. All I can say is this – when you see someone driving around town with the girl you love, you may not say it out loud, but you definitely feel the sentiment described. Cee Lo’s just saying what we’re all thinking, and I, for one, am firmly on board with him.
2. Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s – Broadripple Is Burning
“Everything that I have loved has turned to stone, so pack your bags and come back home.”
Delightfully bleak. That’s the best way I can describe the music of the intricately named Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. Their songs have a way of absolutely ripping your heart out but also making you want more, and “Broadripple Is Burning” is no exception. The instrumentation starts off fairly simply, with just a little acoustic guitar, tambourine, and occasional bits of harmonica, but the piercing voice of Richard Edwards will draw you in to the heart of the song and the wallowing ooo’s in the background will “haunt you like a ghost.” The band furnishes the arrangement a little more as the song goes on, and it absolutely blossoms by the time the last verse hits. Still, I particularly like the version of this song from the “Daytrotter Sessions” (a live version akin to a lounge recording from radio station that I’ve included here) which sticks to the more bare instrumentation throughout and slows things down just a bit. I had the privilege of seeing Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s in concert this fall, and the group’s performance of this song really grabbed me. The raw lyrics of love and loss and want will move you, and it’s assuredly one of the best songs I discovered this year. You can listen to the album version of “Broadripple Is Burning” here.
3. Paramore – The Only Exception
“And I’ve always lived like this, keeping a comfortable, distance. And up until now I had sworn to myself that I’m content with loneliness, because none of it was ever worth the risk.”
I’ve warmed up to Top 40 radio a little bit over the past year. I still think the vast majority of it is pretty disposable, but many of the songs are worth a few head-bobs before they’re forgotten, and every now and again you find a diamond in the rough like this one. “The Only Exception” is a tightly constructed meditation on the nature of love in the face of skepticism and sobering experience. It helps that the song comes from the faux-indie darlings of Paramore. It also helps that this isn’t the usual sort of trite or syrupy love song that makes its way to the popular airwaves. It’s a song that explores the sentiments of someone with significant cynicism about the prospects for, and even the very idea of, love, who meets someone that completely defies their expectations. This gives the tune greater depth and reach than your average love song, and makes it into something more gripping, and, dare I say, real. The song doesn’t beat you over the head with its point, but rather, Paramore presents a straightforward and simple, though no less profound message – sometimes a person comes along who puts you down the path to letting go of all these sorts of long-held doubts. This one on came on the radio in the middle of a long drive home, and I’ve been stuck on it ever since.
4. Kevin Devine – Just Stay
“And I’m grabbing at a feeling now that I can’t ever name. Some signpost to remind me how I wanted things this way.”
Kevin Devine is one of many blessings the fine folks at Pandora have been gracious enough to bestow upon me. He’s a versatile singer-songwriter who can excel at everything from light acoustics to indie-style musical ornamentation to full-on rocking out, and everything in between. “Just Stay” runs the gamut. It starts with Devine breaking into song over the lone strums of an acoustic guitar. Just as he coos out the first instance of the line “just stay” the heavy drums and stronger accompaniment start to kick things into gear and Devine doesn’t look back. The song takes a sharp detour on the lyrics “I can hear it clear as day” with a harder and louder interlude, but then, just as quickly, it drops down back to the plain acoustic guitar for the lyrics “I sing like this, it sounds worse than it is. I’m okay.” From there, it’s a slow build into the climax of the song with faster beats and stronger vocals as we hit the final, desperate cries of “Just stay, just stay!” The song is a multi-course meal of musicality and sincerity, and I’ve been ordering the usual for some time now. It’s a piece about a man confronting and dealing with his own insecurities and the fear that they’ll drive others away. I’d deign to count it as a universal message that resonates uniquely with Devine’s well-crafted lyrics and passionate vocals. The whole is more than the sum of its parts as you listen to this man try to tuck those fears into a corner and hold onto those he cares about. Easily one of my favorite songs of the past year.
5. Say Anything – Do Better
“Your life is always the post of something else. Where is the present in the way that you present yourself?”
I cannot get enough of Say Anything. They are simultaneously witty, low-brow, clever, and earnest in the songs they put together. “Do Better” fits this to a tee. Between pop culture callouts like “Debra’s Messing with your brain” and even the occasional fart joke, this song is both an affirmation of and a stiff kick in the ass for my generation’s abundant contingent of slackers, settlers, and would-be activists. Lead singer Max Bemis belts out an anthem that espouses the value of not taking life too seriously, while also, as the song’s title portends, encouraging his audience to aim higher for what they want from it. The song is also catchy as hell, with a sleek little pizzicato string intro put over an almost disco-esque beat that meshes far better than it has any right to. Bemis’ vocals are a true highlight with a delivery that is both melodic and just a bit sarcastic, perfectly suited to the chiding but encouraging nature of the song. “Do Better” lights a fire under its listeners, socially and musically, and I was very pleased to have felt its heat this past year.
6. Third Eye Blind – Jumper
“Everyone’s got to face down the demons. Maybe today, you could put the past away.”
My good friend Maheep spent one night out this summer signing the opening lines from this song about fifty times, over and over again, throughout the evening. By the time I made it home, the tune was firmly stuck in my head, never to escape. “Jumper” is filled with all kinds of great little riffs that stick with you, and an initial few bars that make up one of the best hooks in rock and roll. Third Eye Blind is one of those bands where I have heard a mere fraction of their discography, but liked everything I’ve heard, and I always feel like I should be digging deeper into their selection of songs. “Jumper,” despite being a song about talking down an individual on the brink of self-destruction, is an absolute treat. The marching-style drums that help lead singer Stephan Jenkins burst into the first verse, carry the bridge, and take the song out to pasture are a particularly unique and engaging part of the music. To boot, the blistering refrain of “I would understand” throughout captures an urgency in the song that pulls the listener in and makes them feel for both the singer and the object of the song. One thing is clear – this is nineties alt-rock at its best, no matter what year you’re listening in.
7. Counting Crows – Catapult
“I wanna be the last thing you hear when you’re falling asleep.”
Counting Crows are another one of those superb bands with lots of great material I need to get a much better helping of. Thankfully my girlfriend Heather is a big fan, and in a display of the fineness of her taste, was kind enough to share this great song with me. Lead singer and lyricist Adam Duritz has one of the most unique voices in all of popular music, and the range of his vocal talents are on full display here. He varies between the softer lament of the verses where he bemoans his present state, and the harsher, even angry tone he takes on during the chorus and peak of the song where he practically pleads for something better, or at least something more. The little lick at the beginning, with a sound that’s at a halfway point between a pan flute and a synthesizer, lures you into the melody and forms an undercurrent that stays with the music until the very last note. One of the more underrated songs in the Counting Crows catalogue, “Catapult” is a testament to the band’s ability to bring together strong lyrics and music that feel perfectly suited to their talents to produce something wonderful. Assuredly one of the best songs I was introduced to in 2010.
8. A Fine Frenzy – Almost Lover
“So you’re gone and I’m haunted, and I bet you are just fine. Did I make it that easy to walk right in and out of my life?”
For a song about a love lost, or rather, one never quite found, this song feels a bit syrupy. Yet, for some reason, it never really suffers for it. Perhaps it’s the sweet crooning of A Fine Frenzy aka Alison Sudol, who lulls the listener in with her smooth as silk vocals and delicate melodies. Still, for all the velvety notes that slip from her lips, she absolutely bursts into the bridge with a honey-coated wail that gives an otherwise gentle song just the slightest little bit of an edge. The waft of the piano throughout the song is haunting and the perfect complement to Sudol’s airy voice. The mix of the ringing of the keys and the hum of the violins as the song crescendos gives it just the right balance and musical heft to keep Sudol’s lamentation in focus. In line with the title, this is a song about a flirtation, a fling, or a dalliance, that meant far more to one party than the other, and all the aftermath that comes part and parcel with that. “Almost Lover” veers a bit into being a mere performance or vocal exhibition, but the song maintains enough sincerity behind the melodic fireworks to make it into something absolutely worth your while.
9. Dr. Dog – Hang On
“And what you thought was a hurricane was just the rustling of the wind. Why you think we need amazing grace just to tell it like it is?”
I have to admit, I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about Dr. Dog. Who they are, what their typical style is, where this tune fits into the larger pantheon of their music is a vague blur of MySpace and Wikipedia to me. What I do know is that I heard this little tune on the radio one day this spring, and I’ve been jamming to it ever since. This is a great opportunity for me to plug 88.1 The Revolution, the college radio station from those dastardly folks at NC State that plays better music than any other station you could set your dial to in The Triangle. It was these fine members of the “wolfpack” who brought this delightful ditty to my attention. “Hang On” is a tune that opens a little light, but then starts swinging almost immediately and doesn’t stop until you’re thoroughly grooving along with the music. The song feels equal parts 60’s folk, modern day indie, jazzy rock, and, with the song’s choral backup, even a little bit gospel. It all comes together in a package that rocks, rolls, and grooves with the best of them. It’s the type of song that makes you want to clap your hands and dive right into the sound. Off their 2008 album “Fate,” “Hang On” is a can’t miss song that made up the soundtrack to many of my celebratory moments in 2010.
10. Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
“And the sun’s so hot I think I’ll catch fire and burn up in the summer air so moist and sweet.”
I just cannot say enough good things about my fellow Durham resident John Darnielle, the chief and sometimes sole member of The Mountain Goats. Few musicians out there can combine the brilliant, piercing depth he achieves with his lyrics, where he can craft a metaphor with the best poets of our day while making allusions to everything from mythology to global politics to literature. What’s more, there is an overwhelmingly raw and honest sensibility in his vocals, that can make a line as simple as “I guess. I guess, but Jesus what a mess” as moving and powerful as any of the more intricate phrases he writes. His voice is certainly outside the mainstream, a bit more nasal and urgent than would easily fit into Top 40 Radio, but he uses it to perfection, stretching everywhere from a low rumble to a pure, heart-on-his-sleeve moment of rapture at the crux of a song. “Heretic Pride” is one of The Mountain Goats’ more up-tempo tunes, with an energy that pulsates throughout and comes to a head as Darnielle bellows “I’ll be so proud when the reckoning arrives.” The song is largely a case of “what it says on the tin.” Darnielle gives a first-person narrative of a heretic, facing an inevitable, severe punishment, who almost revels in it due to noble dignity of suffering and even dying for one’s deeply-held though unpopular beliefs. A fine primer to the latter-day output of The Mountain Goats, “Heretic Pride” is a great song among the many great songs John Darnielle has written and sung over the last ten years.
Roman Candle – Eden Was A Garden, a quality tune that feels a little more fun and a little more epic each time you hear it. In particular, the shift from the opener to the meat of the song was stellar.
Billy Joel – She’s Always A Woman, What can I say, I’m a sucker for a little bit of piano, and the lyrics here are cutting and lionizing at the same time. That said, it’s a relatively recent addition to my collection and thus it’s probably caught in that odd limbo where it’s too late to really count for 2010 but too early to fit in to 2011 either.
The Mountain Goats – Against Pollution, “We will recognize each other for the first time the way we truly are.” I was easily stuck on this line alone as much as any other in 2010, but I had to give the nod to the somewhat more representative “Heretic Pride.”
Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s – A Children’s Crusade on Acid, Again, I was just as stuck on this one, particularly the rhythm of the line “I don’t know you, and I don’t owe you a damn” but I hesitated to double up when it came to artists.
Johnny Cash – I See a Darkness, A cover of a song I rather enjoy from Bonnie “Prince” Billy by The Man In Black himself. The song is a bit of a rough fit for Cash in his later years, but backing vocals from Billy himself turn this into something special.