2010 in Review: Music

I really, really liked this year for music. In a normal year, all I look for is a handful of albums to enter my normal rotation, and one or two to achieve greatness. This year it was hard to go more than a month or two before I heard something new that I loved. So let’s take a look at the winners:

Best Album

Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid

Janelle Monáe is what Lady Gaga would sound like if she actually deserved all the hype. While Gaga’s weirdness is highly calculated, Monae’s bizarre marriage of hip-hop, pop excess, old timey sci-fi, and “classy brass” feels infinitely more genuine. While Lady Gaga’s entire image is built on the artificiality of pop music, Janelle Monáe is only labeled as “pop” because no other label exists for her style. I haven’t been so impressed with a genre-bending album since TV on the Radio’s Dear Science.

The ArchAndroid is sort of a concept album. It, along with the EP Monáe released before her debut (which includes the highly recommended song “Sincerely, Jane”), are all built around a concept loosely connected to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. The basic idea is that an android named 57821 has fallen in love with her master. That’s pretty much it. But that concept is stretched so far and so brilliantly across touches of folk, jazz, funk, and interludes by a full orchestra, that the end result occupies some undefined middle ground between prog rock and hip-hop.

As for Monáe herself, it is unbelievably relieving to have a woman with all the making of a pop icon that hasn’t been hyper-sexualized. There’s no denying that she’s more than attractive enough to be a sex symbol, but she’s too much of a nerd, and she’d rather wear a tuxedo on stage and dance like a robot than take part in a Maxim photoshoot. In a year where we all had to suffer the attempts at making train wrecks like Ke$ha look sexy, it was such a relief to see an actually attractive woman succeed on pure talent.
Recommended songs include the single “Tightrope,” the lightning-fast and percussive “Dance or Die,” the only intelligent use of voice modulation I’ve ever heard in “Mushrooms and Roses,” and the almost-a-James-Bond-theme closer “Babopbye Ya.” The only misstep is “Make the Bus,” which features a guest spot by Of Montreal, but its best moments far out shine a single middling track.

Best Songs

10. Broken Bells – October

This one is on the list for purely personal reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Broken Bells’ debut album (but then again, I have yet to find a Danger Mouse project I didn’t love). But the only reason this has earned a spot on my top ten is for the following lines: “Remember what they say/ There’s no shortcut to a dream/It’s all blood and sweat/And life is what/We manage in between.” That a bit more literal than I normally go for, but this year, those are exactly the words I wanted to hear. Any other year, I would’ve picked “The Ghost Inside.”

9. Kanye West ft. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Bon Iver – Monster

This one is pretty inexplicable. It’s terribly overstuffed. And I don’t even like Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj. That’s to say nothing of Kanye West, who I totally wrote off after 808s and Heartbreak and wasn’t nearly as blown away by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the rest of the music-reviewing world was. But this song… this is a fantastic song. It’s a single that’s just shy of six-and-a-half minutes. The verses are long, around a minute and a half each. The lyrics aren’t so much sung as growled. It’s too aggressive, too bizarre, too mean to work as a single, which makes it all the more awesome that it is one.

8. Lykke Li – Get Some (link isn’t just to Youtube… it’s a free download)

Sometimes I hate adding something so recent to a “best-of-the-year” list. It reminds me of those years when movie studios hold back on all the Oscar bait until December. I first heard this song about a week ago. My immediate thought was “Sorry Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. You just got bumped off the bottom of my list.” (Aside to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: I’m really, really sorry. I wanted to keep you on this list. Your album was so good. I love your throwback style. You’re not just imitators; you’re just as good as what you’re imitating. But ultimately there was no single track better than these ten. Sorry guys (and lady).) Lykke Li normally sounds like a Swedish Regina Spector, but with less piano. “Get Some,” however, is a completely different animal. The meekness you’d normally expect is completely gone, replaced by rolling drums and pounding bass. The vocals are still breathy and ethereal, but the background instrumentation makes everything sound sharper. It’s also worth noting that Beck did a remix (which you can get here for free), which is completely different but just as good.

7. Gorillaz – Empire Ants

The best thing about Plastic Beach was how many risks Damon Albarn took with song structure. Take “White Flag,” for example, a song that begins with the strings and percussion of the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, breaks into the back-and-forth hip-hop by Kano and Bashy, and returns to the Orchestra for the final moments. “Empire Ants” does the same; it’s a song divided into two halves with no discernible chorus. I covered this album and this song in depth here, and my feelings have largely remained unchanged. I just enjoy it even more than before. If Gorillaz make any more albums, I really hope that Yukimi Nagano shows up a few more times. The album does seem to suggest that she is supposed to be the voice of Noodle, the animated band’s guitarist, so I think we’re in luck.

6. Spoon – Written in Reverse (note: link not to the studio version)

There are precious few artists as consistent as Spoon. From Kill the Moonlight on, Spoon has defined themselves as the go-to band for stripped-down rhythmic rock. “Written in Reverse” fits that mold perfectly. As many sounds are firing off at once, everything is coming in as a staccato chop: symbols, piano, and guitar. It feels like a song that’s been fragmented and pieced back together again. It’s a standout, hard-to-ignore track from one of the year’s best albums.

5. The Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

With the Arcade Fire, I think I prefer Win Butler to Régine Chassagne. No disrespect to the latter, I just prefer his voice to her more breathy approach. Now to completely contradict what I just said, the songs Régine sings alone are some of the best the band has done, specifically “Haiti” and “Sprawl II”. I’m really not sure how both can be true, but I suppose that it’s just a testament to how effectively the rest of the band can play off her strengths. “Sprawl II” effectively encapsulates the rest of the themes found in The Suburbs, including middle-class resistance to the artistic/bohemian lifestyle and malaise with the widespread sameness of suburbia. Sorry if that description drifts too close to the “pretentious things” mentioned in the opening lines.

4. Janelle Monáe ft. Big Boi – Tightrope

I had serious trouble deciding on a Janelle Monáe song to highlight. The whole album is phenomenal (see above), but “Tightrope” is the single for a reason; and it’s not just because Big Boi is a bigger name. The song is insanely catchy. There is a weird, distinct, and simple dance, which is a good thing, since this song will make you want to dance. Monáe does some impressive vocal gymnastics throughout. Big Boi’s guest spot adds variation, but it’s certainly not necessary since there are plenty of creative flourishes all over the place. It’s just a great song.

3. The Roots ft. John Legend – The Fire

I have to give it to The Roots. After they became Jimmy Fallon’s house band, I had pretty much written them off as effectively retired. Yet somehow this year, they managed to release a double whammy – the excellent How I Got Over and another album of covers with John Legend. To clarify, this collaboration with John Legend is an original song off How I Got Over. It’s also one of the best the band has ever written. “The Fire” is a song about inspiration and motivation, and I can’t think of too many other unrelentingly positive songs (especially in hip-hop) that convey their message so clearly and effectively without ever feeling sappy or trite.

2. Cee-Lo Green – Georgia (link isn’t just to Youtube… it’s a free download)

I know, I know. Everybody loves “Fuck You.” And for good reason. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where Cee-Lo told his record label the name of his first single. But the track from the former Goodie Mob frontman that really blew me away was “Georgia,” Cee-Lo’s ode to his home state which didn’t even make it on to the final version of The Lady Killer. Now just to be clear, I’ve had three types of experiences with Georgia: a layover in the Atlanta airport, an afternoon spent in Savanna, and driving through on my way to Florida. I have absolutely zero emotional investment in the state. And yet even I’m a little bit moved by how earnest and heartfelt Cee-Lo’s tribute to the place that “even raised to the people that raised me” is. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a damn good singer either, and is clearly giving it his all here.

1. The Black Keys – Howlin’ for You

What an earworm this track is. This comes at the end of the opening four tracks of Brothers, after the also amazing songs “Everlasting Light,” “Next Girl,” and “Tighten Up”. Those four make for one of the strongest beginnings of any album I’ve ever heard. By the time I got to this song, I realized there was something seriously wrong with me for not paying more attention to The Black Keys before. “Howlin’ for You” features an irrepressible fuzzy bass line played on a normal guitar (sort of like in the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”) in a call-and-response with another guitar playing high-pitched four-note flourishes. It’s distinct and catchy, and has one of those perfect blues set-ups where the song could easily continue endlessly with infinite variation.

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