The TOP TWENTY-FIVE SONGS of 2010

The TOP TWENTY-FIVE SONGS of 2010

At last, we arrive at what is, for me, the most difficult and perhaps the most controversial list of the year: the best songs.  Without fear of exaggeration, I can honestly tell you that I’ve revised this list a minimum of eight times since I first wrote it.  After all that effort, I’m no closer to feeling like I’ve assembled the perfect list.

Thankfully, that is not — and should never be — the point.

I recently read an anti-top ten list article posted by musician/writer John Roderick, and retweeted by Steven Page.  His essential arguments made sense to me on an intellectual level.  After all, music can’t be quantified.  And it is in our contemporary nature as a society to want all things quantified and commodified.  This is, at best, a misguided — and, at worst, corrupt — frame of mind.  If we are to believe that numbers may be accurately assigned as signifiers for people, even for songs, then something deeper, more intuitive has been lost.  This is not the Age of Reason; we do not function solely on the basis of our minds and logical thought, nor should we desire to.

This being said, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the top ten list!

The top ten (or twenty, or fifty, or whatever) list is not supposed to be a perfect, accurate interpretation of the worth of the year’s songs.  If that were even possible, that would be boring.

The point of the top ten list is, as writer, to wade waist-deep into the year’s music — that which you love, that which you hated, that which you’d forgotten about, that which you’ve been convinced to give a second chance — and to try to make some sense out of the glorious sonic confusion.   As a reader of the list, the point is to feel your soul confirmed in some choices and to rage on fanatically against the injustices of inferior albums being raised to undeserved heights.

This is the urgent, enjoyable culmination of twelve months of experiencing new music.  While others were mindlessly soaking in sounds through the radio’s narrow blinders, you were out there on the front lines, listening to full albums, making yourself vulnerable to disappointment in the face of new releases by artists you love, and endeavoring to hear bands and artists you never imagined yourself even listening to — never mind liking(!) — in the past.

This is the process we go through, and the top ten list celebrates that process.  I may develop a more effective rating system — a good friend suggested developing a five-prong rating system for next year — but, for this year, I developed my list keeping in mind: how often I listened to the song, how strong the songwriting is (lyrically, composition, etc.), instrumental performance, vocal delivery, innovation, and overall effect.  I could write a 500 word post on why “You Run Away” is my number one song, so I’ll limit my comments to what I’ve already written above.

Go ahead: sift through my flawed list.  Love it, hate it, but for goodness’ sake, don’t agree with it entirely.  And if you must, feel free to comment below.

1)  “You Run Away” – Barenaked Ladies

2)  “Uncharted” – Sara Bareilles

3)  “You Wouldn’t Have to Ask” – Bad Books

4)  “Tighten Up” – The Black Keys

5)  “Four Seconds” – Barenaked Ladies

6)  “Written in Reverse” – Spoon

7)  “The Difference Between Us” – The Dead Weather

8 )  “Hurricane J” – The Hold Steady

9)  “Still Your Song” – Goo Goo Dolls

10)  “Claire’s Ninth” – Ben Folds

11)  “21st Century” – Locksley

12)  “Wasted Hours” – Arcade Fire

13)  “Fire with Fire” – Scissor Sisters

14)  “Little Lion Man” – Mumford & Sons

15)  “Fistful of Mercy” – Fistful of Mercy

16)  “Basket Case” – Sara Bareilles

17)  “Taos” – Menomena

18)  “Gasoline” – The Dead Weather

19)  “Summertime” – Barenaked Ladies

20)  “First Kiss on Mars” – STP

21)  “Champaign, Illinois” – Old 97’s

22)  “Half Crazy” – Jukebox the Ghost

23)  “As I Am” – Goo Goo Dolls

24)  “Thieves” – She & Him

25)  “Out Go the Lights” – Spoon

Honorable Mentions:

“Dark Fantasy” – Kanye West

“I Can Change” – LCD Soundsystem

The Weekend Review: February 2011 Report

By Chris Moore:

Don’t be shy; step right up for this, the second Weekend Review of the new year.  It’s long in coming, so each weekend until we catch up, I’ll be bringing you these month-at-a-glance reports.  I’m very happy with the focus and concision of the new format, as you’ll see below.  However, it appears to be less than iPhone-ready, so I’m working on ways to fix that.  After all, there’s nothing worse than visiting a site on your iPhone and coming to the realization that you won’t be able to read it properly.  Well, I suppose there are probably a few things worse than that, but what I mean is that there’s just no excuse in the 21st century for websites NOT to work smoothly on mobile devices, so please know I’m working on that.

I hope you enjoy reading, and hurry back this week (and, of course, next weekend) for all-new music-related content on the Laptop Sessions cover song music video blog!

 

The People’s Key
Bright Eyes 

Producer:
Bright Eyes &
Mike Mogis

Released:
February 1, 2011

Rating:
2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Triple Spiral” & “Jejune Stars”

This being my first Bright Eyes album experience, I must say it’s a mixed bag: lyrically excellent, yet musically ranging from masterfully beautiful to far too weird to be listenable.  I didn’t expect the sort of alternative country sound I’d heard from Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band when they opened for Wilco a couple summers ago.  However, I certainly didn’t expect the sort of spoken word nonsense that stretches for MINUTES across the beginning of the first track (which is a shame, as “Firewall” is actually quite a strong song otherwise) and resurface elsewhere. 

On paper, it is understandable why Oberst added Denny Brewer’s “shamanic vocals,” as the liner notes refer to them.  After all, they add a certain inimitable spiritual, existential ambience to the record.  They also grow old quite quickly and distract from the excellent music being laid out and the even more profoundly impressive lyrics being voiced throughout, especially on standouts like the driving  rock track “Triple Spiral” and the early gem “Jejune Stars.”  The latter track lyrically raises issues (and the bar) that will stretch throughout the remainder of The People’s Key, as Oberst sings, “Come fire, come water, come karma, we’re all in transition / The Wheel of Becoming erases the physical mind / Till all that remains is a staircase of misinformation / And the code we inherit, the basis, the essence of life … / It’s just so bizarre, is it true what we’re made of? / Why do I hide from the rain?”  He is referring, of course, to the fact that our bodies are made up – by an overwhelming percentage – of water, yet we carry umbrellas and seek shelter from the rain.

Elsewhere, though, the songs drag a bit, as on “Approximate Sunlight” and “Ladder Song.”  All in all, this could have been an outstanding album rather than one I pay a complisult (see: Community; combination compliment & insult) by writing something like:

The People’s Key falters and falls short at various points, yet there are a series of truly first-rate tracks, like the closer “One for You, One for Me,” which make the album worth the purchase, if you’re willing to skip a few tracks and fast-forward through several others.

 

Yuck
Yuck 

Producer:
Yuck

Released:
February 15, 2011

Rating:
3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Shook Down” & “Suicide Policeman”

Yuck is one of the pleasant musical surprises of 2011.  The band’s debut album is a distorted, grungy, feedback-ridden gem that sparkles as often as it crackles. 

What is most impressive about Yuck is their sense of ebb and flow, clearly evident through the arrangement of tracks here.  The smoother sound and brighter vocals of “Shook Down” slip in after two tracks where the garage rock mentality ruled and where even the vocals were run through with distortion.  Then, by the end, that pedal-processed guitar sound sneaks back in just in time to make the transition to the dirty-sounding “Holing Out.”

This is the sort of well-planned craftsmanship that helps to hide the fact that this is a first album.  If nothing else, Yuck is one of the noisiest, most energetic rock albums of the year.  It isn’t perfect – the noise overtakes the tracks here and there and the quality fades noticeably by the end – and, in fact, the final two tracks are wholly unnecessary and should have been cut entirely, shipped off to bonus track land.  (Which reminds me, if you buy this album – which you should, I highly recommend it – don’t waste your time with the bonus track editions.)

In modern music criticism, I feel as though something has been lost, namely a sense of appreciation for the rock essentials: riffs, solos, catchy choruses, snappy lyricism.  Yuck has all these components.  Although I was initially put off by the level of grunge that absolutely pervades several tracks, I’ve come around to the careful sonic mastery displayed by the band more and more with each listen.

The final verdict?  Not perfect by any means, but one of the most exciting releases of 2011.

 

The King of Limbs
Radiohead 

Producer:
Nigel Godrich

Released:
February 18, 2011

Rating:
4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Codex” & “Little by Little”

Even longtime Radiohead devotees appeared thrown by this release.  The sessions for the record were announced… a whole week before its release, and the band decided to release the album a day early because… well, why not?  With all the moves that make them an interesting band for reasons outside the music, Radiohead ushered The King of Limbs into their long tradition of norm-breaking practices. 

The music itself is strikingly sparse at times, but this does not – and is surely not meant to – conceal just how much attention has been paid to subtlety.  The percussion is particularly notable this time around as clicks and clacks and clangs and taps abound.  Additionally, there is a riff-driven feel at times, though not in any traditional sense.  In many ways, this is another of those albums from Radiohead that are clearly produced using fairly standard instruments, yet where just how to reproduce these sounds and songs would prove elusive.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of Radiohead: I fall firmly into the category of liking OK Computer and thinking much of their other work is seriously overrated.  That being said, In Rainbows (2007) changed my mind a bit – and even made my top albums of the decade list.  The King of Limbs continues my reappraisal of the band, particularly when the breathtaking, heartbreaking beauty of a song like “Codex” and the oddly catchy nature of tracks like “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little by Little” are undeniable.  The acoustic loop on “Give Up the Ghost” and even the nearly-instrumental “Feral” add texture and unpredictability to the mix, as the lack of a clear single or rock sensibility threaten to flatten the record.

All told, the eight tracks of The King of Limbs offer the perfect length for an album of subtleties and stripped-down, built-back-up beauty like this; any shorter, it couldn’t be called an album, and, any longer, it would lose its momentum and appeal.

And so, for the first time in my life, I offer up to you a review of Radiohead that includes my seal of approval.  It’s not the most rocking record, but that’s not the point.  It is, however, a starkly beautiful album of subtle complexities and unique qualities, quirky enough to be interesting but not so much as to be alienating.

 

Happy 69th Birthday to Bob Dylan!

By Chris Moore:

Although Sony Music has accused me of copyright infringement — then revoked their claim, then made it again — for posting acoustic cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, I am endeavoring to direct all my negative energy at the financial mega-power rather than at the singer/songwriter himself.

With that being said, I couldn’t allow today to slip by without tipping my hat to the man that sparked in me a passion for lyrics and music, albums and artwork, critical perceptions of social issues, and 1960’s American history.

To celebrate Bob Dylan’s sixty-ninth birthday, I’ve put together two more posts in my quest to review all of Dylan’s studio albums by New Year’s Day 2011.  I already put Bob Dylan (1962) under the one-sentence microscope and wrote a full five-star Weekend Review of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), so that brings us to The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), the last of his all-acoustic albums until the early nineties.

Before I leave you to my reviews, I want to make two additional plugs for Dylan.  First of all, if you haven’t already, you should take a few minutes and check out the “Drawn Blank” series of Dylan-penned graphics at http://www.bobdylanart.com.  I wish I could afford the actual prints, but I had to settle for l0w-quality j-pegs from the Cassandra and Train Tracks portfolios to use on my desktop, a nice affordable way to celebrate Dylan’s birthday!

Finally, I just read that Newsweek released its list of the top albums of the decade…

…and Love & Theft (2001) is #2!

This thrilled me more than it probably should have, as his September 11th, 2001 classic has been one of my favorite in his catalog since the day it was released.  Well, technically the day after.  (I remember writing in my journal on September 10th that nothing would stand in the way of me going to the CD store to buy Love & Theft on its release day, of course having no idea what tragedy was to befall NYC and the nation.)  I love this album so much, that I actually own two different versions — the original edition, as well as the special edition released later with two additional tracks and different photos included in the packaging.

And, with that, I urge you to listen to a Bob Dylan song today, or better yet, a whole album!  As for me, I’ve listened to two and if you’re interested, my thoughts on them will follow soon…

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5 stars

For over a decade, Brian Burton has made it his business to strike up some of the most unique alliances between artists and genres, and the results have, to a surprising degree, been both fascinating and entertaining.

Anyone who knows music knows that one or the other is fairly simple to achieve; any project able to be described by both modifiers is impressive.

You will likely have heard of Burton by his nom de plume Danger Mouse — or perhaps, more anonymously, as one half of Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells, or Danger Doom.  If you are one of the few who read liner notes, then you would also recognize him as the producer of recent albums by Beck and the Black Keys, among others.

If you are reading about him here for the first time, then you will most certainly recognize him as an artist who revels in the blending of elements that otherwise wouldn’t overlap under normal circumstances.  It is his affinity for such ventures, an attribute that would, in the hands of most artists, result in a disconnected collection of tracks, that drives and distinguishes Dark Night of the Soul.

First, it should be established that this record is defined by the “Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present” formula (i.e. Danger Mouse on synthesizers and other instruments and Sparklehorse’s multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous on guitars among other analog instruments).  Each track was co-written with a guest artist or band, who then sang the lead vocals.  Film maker David Lynch, who collaborated on the album as a whole, is the only guest to sing lead on more than one track.

By all rights, this should be an effort incapable of cohesion.

Instead, Dark Night of the Soul hinges not on the strength of individual tracks, but rather on the effect achieved by the whole.

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse's "Dark Night of the Soul" (2010)

The record is a multi-faceted exploration of the darker sides of humanity and the human psyche.  The first line of the opener, “Revenge,” refers to pain as “a matter of sensation,” the singer directing his lyrics at someone who has “ways of avoiding it all.”  Several tracks later, “Pain” explores the flip side from the perspective of a man — voiced fittingly by Iggy Pop — who “must always feel pain.”

Other songs cover similar ground, notably the latter half’s “Daddy’s Gone” that serves as a thematically relevant flip-side of sorts to “Little Girl,” which came six tracks earlier.  “Insane Lullaby” asserts that “A good life will never be enough,” echoing and extending the sentiment begun earlier in “Angel’s Harp” that “Though you might be walkin’ tall, everybody got a lot to grow.”  Both of these aforementioned track titles draw on the language of soothing religious and children’s music, diction that is belied by the gloomy content of the lyrics.

The final pairing of the album, “Grim Augury” and the title track (tracks 12 and 13), present the final descent into darkness.  Vic Chesnutt’s voicing of the former is additionally haunting following the news of his suicide shortly after recording the song.  His request, then, that his “sweetie” not sing “this sad song, grim augury” seems a moot point, being as it’s an augury after-the-fact for listeners who waited until the recent official release of the album following EMI’s inter-label nonsense.

Still, Chesnutt’s song is perhaps the most dramatic track on the album, lyrically speaking, as he sings: “I was peering in through the picture window.  It was a heart-warming tableau like a Norman Rockwell painting until I zoomed in.”  The haunting scene which he sees is a bloody one and is imbued with portents of violence; up to this point there had only been emotional turmoil and less physical notions of pain.  Even “Just War” could easily be argued in a metaphoric rather than literal sense.

With Chesnutt, there is no question about the “horrible dream” and the true darkness expressed by the track.

In March of this year, four months before the official release of Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous took his own life as well, reportedly by a rifle blast to the chest.  As much as one might accept on an intellectual level that music should be taken for what it is, separate from context, it is difficult to separate the tragic deaths of Linkous and Chesnutt from their performances on this haunting release. (They are, after all, dedicated to the memory of the two artists.)

It is difficult not to listen to these recordings with a renewed sense of their depth.  To be sure, they are not all depressing, but the closest the album comes to upbeat is the reckless tone of “Everytime I’m With You” or the melancholy of “Jaykub.”

So, in the end, you get what you’re promised from the outset, from the title.  It is a bit more serious, a bit more real than most music is able to manage, and it comes at a high price.