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Best Music of 2010


If you dig these songs please consider buying them. Most can be had for less than a buck. They will also be hosted at Pruning Shears until Thursday, so you can try before you buy over there.

Here are my favorite songs this year from my RSS feeds. I use Sharp Reader as my aggregator but it requires the .NET framework, which older computers may not have. Feed Reader doesn’t need it and is good too. See the “Free MP3 sites” part of my blogroll for my current feed list.

Most weeks I burn as many new songs as I can fit onto a rewritable CD and give it a thorough listen (usually five times), so in that spirit I keep the list under the same limit. In a way 80 minutes is arbitrary, but it’s also respectful of listeners to show some restraint. If you fall in love with my taste in music drop me a line and I’ll get you the rest of the songs I considered but didn’t have room for.

On the reckoning of time

I age songs by release date, not recording date. Until I get my grubby little hands on it, it doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned. When it first makes it out to the public it is new, no matter how long it may have been gathering dust somewhere.

Recommended albums

In addition to the ones mentioned in the list here are the albums in 2010 I enjoyed front to back:

B.o.B – B.o.B Presents: The Adventures Of Bobby Ray. I know B.o.B has already hit it big, so the backlash may have begun. This is a really good album though. He seems like a musical polymath much like the young Prince. He seems poised to do what Prince did early on, too – release a string of genre-hopping albums that achieve the rare feat of being both high quality and hugely popular.

Fol Chen – The New December. “Cable TV” from their previous album made my 2008 list, so I was looking out for them. I thought they were going to be one hit wonders, so imagine my surprise when “In Ruins” turned out to be good enough to make me buy the album. It’s almost more interesting for what it promises than what it delivers. It’s a very good album but has some phenomenal flashes. Fol Chen has greatness in them. If they can sustain it for an entire album, look out.

Psalm One – Woman At Work Vol. 3. Psalm One tries out lots of different sounds and approaches, and is an intriguing lyricist. Listening to it I kept wondering, what is autobiographical and what is character driven? That kind of ambiguity makes for good listening.

Highlife – Best Bless. “F Kenya RIP” was leaked to music blogs in 2009 and ended up at #5 on my list. I still listen to it a lot, still love it and think it’s a very special song. The rest of the EP is excellent too.

Resignation of the year: Arcade Fire

A few years back all the right people were talking up The Neon Bible, so I snapped it up and was looking forward to being blown away. Nope. The only song that did anything for me was that one that ripped off John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. So when The Suburbs came out I was hoping to hear something I hadn’t on the previous one. Nope. Once again, only a single song stood out – this time “City With No Children,” which really is terrific. But the rest of it passed by unnoticed. So I’ve given up on them. I’m not saying they suck, I’m just saying I won’t be trying to get with that particular program anymore. They are one of those popular groups that I simply can’t get a grip on.

Honorable Mention

I usually reserve an Honorable Mention spot for a longer song. Most years there’s at least one 7+ minute song that I like quite a bit, but since I try to get lots of different artists on the list I don’t want a single tune to crowd out several other candidates. When a longer song really blows me away (like “Bushels” by Frog Eyes in 2007) I’ll make room, but overall I prefer to keep my selections under five minutes or so.

23. “Hunter” – Citay (Buy)
You might hear this and think, “1978 called and asked for its warmed over prog/folk back,” but I don’t care. It sounds great, and that’s all I do care about. Funny enough, after listening to it a few times I decided to see what reviewers were saying. So I looked here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. All seemed like they read the promotional material, noted the Steely Dan reference, listened to it once, gave it three stars and called it a day. Only this one from Samuel Valdes Lopez singled out “Hunter” as the standout. (The album also includes a visit from tUnE-YarDs, currently the best name in music.) Funny enough, right around this time I became aware of San Francisco’s angst over where its Next Big Thing was and its consequent championing of Joanna Newsom. Dear folks: May I humbly suggest that the artist you’re looking for has been under your nose for a while now, and in January released the 2010 Album of the Year?

The List

(And yes as proof of concept I burned them on to a CD using Winamp.)

22. (2010 Best Percussion) “I Was Never Bored at All” – Francis (Buy)
There are lots of different ways to keep the beat, aren’t there?

21. “Marken Lag Stilla” – Dungen (Buy)
So a few years back I heard “C Visar Vägen,” which I liked a lot – but not enough to put on the list. Then a couple years ago I heard “Satt Att Se,” which I liked a lot – but not enough to put on the list. Then last year I heard “Dirt Naps” by 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers, which samples “Satt Att Se” (YESS!!) and which (stop me if you’ve heard this before) I liked a lot – but not enough to put on the list. I was starting to think I’d have to make some kind of Lifetime Achievement award for Dungen because they release a lot of really good music that seemed destined to just miss the cut. Happily that is no longer an issue; they knocked it out of the park with “Marken Lag Stilla.”

20. “Ghost” – Natasha Borzilova (Buy)
In addition to having a beautiful voice, Borzilova sings in a lower register than most women. It gives her vocals a little more gravity and in this song a distinctive tone of melancholy. There’s no mistaking her for anyone else.

19. (2010 Best Handclaps) “Up Up Up” – Givers (Buy)
A very full and complete sounding song, which is particularly surprising considering it’s basically a bunch of teenagers with their first song ever. (That’s not strictly true obviously – see their site!) Released last November, but I give a grace period for relatively unknown artists. They don’t exactly get their stuff released with a blaze of publicity, so it can take some time for it to make its way out.

18. “Two Bedroom Apartment” – Danielle Ate the Sandwich (Buy)
A nearly perfectly captured sense of longing, accompanied – amazingly enough – by a lightly strummed ukulele.

17. “Running Out” – Scissor Sisters (Buy)
Every couple of months it seems like some song is the darling of music blogs, indie hipsters, and all the rest of the people in the know. Everyone posts on it, reviews it, talks about it, and the vast majority of the time it’s mediocre at best. The last song that lived up to the hype was “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. which was, let’s see, three and a half years ago. I basically don’t bother anymore, which is why I gave this one a pass when it started showing up everywhere. But when Said the Gramophone gave it the seal of approval I relented. I’m glad I did. Take this one to the nearest dance floor!

16. “Self Machine” – I Blame Coco (Artist home page)
Speaking of dance floors. There’s usually a delay between when I download a song and start listening to it, which has a really nice benefit: By the time it gets on to my playlist I’ve forgotten about it. This makes it possible to mix in the occasional bit of popular stuff and listen to it on its merits, without any of the attendant hype – good or bad. (By the way, I know Taylor Swift has become inescapable and oppressive, but if “Speak Now” is any indication she’s a perfectly legitimate artist.) It also helps tamp down expectations when there are other circumstances in play. In this case Coco Sumner is Sting’s daughter, and I’m glad I didn’t start listening with that knowledge. I’d have expected a half-assed effort typical for the dilettante offspring of the famous. Instead this is a top notch slice of electro-pop. And incidentally, having a famous parent in the industry doesn’t appear to get you too far these days. She’ll have to hoof it just like everyone else.

15. “Like The Wheel” – The Tallest Man On Earth (Buy)
Another artist I’ve been watching for a while now. First came to my attention for A Field of Birds, which is a very, very good one. But this one: oh my. Another unmistakable voice.

14. “Fidelity” – Isaiah and Hovey (Facebook page)
Since hip hop puts such a premium on lyrics it probably shouldn’t be surprising that it has some of the best. For instance, some get into topical and socially conscious territory that, with the possible exception of folk, is more immediate and topical than in any other genre. (Favorite lyrics of the year: “Don’t think you’re safe though / because you’re not black / greed is color blind / so I’m color blind / they gon’ fuck with yours soon as they done with mine.”) Sometimes it’s just wordplay, though like in this song. Literally playing with words, putting sounds and images together just because it’s fun: “Now back to Studebaker, / Keep it rolling like a wagon / I flow no circuit breaker / Spitting fire like a dragon / So my bars are extra crispy / Got a flow you can’t imagine / And on songs I’m never lagging / Because rapping is my passion, bwoy!” Also, a phenomenal hook.

13. “Do You Swear” – Amanda Palmer (Buy)
For a long time now I’ve liked the idea of Amanda Palmer’s music more than her actual music. I like what she did with the Dresden Dolls and love the idea of a David Bowie for this generation; someone with a superb pop sensibility and just enough of a skewed outlook to be unacceptable for the mainstream. Someone transcendentally cool for today’s losers and misfits to embrace, and who embraces them right back.

This right here is the kind of thing I’ve been waiting for. It’s hardly the hip sound of the moment, and in any event with lines like “we’re all gonna die and a blow job’s fantastic” it was destined to miss your local Top 40 station regardless of its instrumentation. Still, it’s got a phenomenal hook and has the kind of cheerfully semi-antisocial attitude that makes perfect sense if you feel destined to live on the margins. It’s cool, it’s way cool, it’s out there for everyone to hear, but like a dog whistle only gets picked up by its intended audience. It’s a balm for a lot of kids (I know precisely none of them personally, but I know they’re out there) who need to hear exactly this. It’s the soundtrack for a secret society that’s hidden in plain sight.

12. “Big Wave” – Jenny and Johnny (Buy)
Best pop song about macroeconomic collapse ever! From I’m Having Fun Now, which I highly recommend.

11. “Take Me With You” – Evil Ebenezer (Buy)
Genres seem to have particular strengths or weaknesses (or at least consistently draw those with them); for instance, introspection rarely seems to get done well in hip hop. That’s part of what makes this one stand out – it not only paints a compelling picture, but a very different one than usual.

10. (2010 Best Whistle) “The Sound” – Benno Herz (Artist home page)
A great contrast: a cheerful and upbeat melody for an anti-love song. Not a hate song, but an indifferent one, an “I don’t see what the fuss is all about” song.

09. (2010 Best Kazoo) “Colors” – April Smith (Buy)
That’s right – best kazoo. Just listen, OK?

08. “Drunken Poet’s Dream” – Ray Wylie Hubbard (Buy)
Great hook, great vocals, great lyrics.

07. “The Daredevil Way” – Terri Tarantula (Buy)
There’s a certain kind of droning, stinging electric guitar sound that I absolutely love and almost never hear. It sounds even better with a female voice in front of it. A couple years ago I was captivated by All The Shallow Deep by Blank Blue, but at the end of the year I kept it off the list because it didn’t have ZAZZ! I regret it now, because it sounds better than some of what’s on the list. Lesson learned: don’t be afraid to go with a quieter sound. Terri Tarantula is the first beneficiary. (That said, I probably only partially learned it and a couple years from now will regret leaving off Diamondback by J. Tillman. Sigh.)

06. “Sunshine Ft M.I.A” – Rye Rye (Buy)
A few years back I was impressed with Rye Rye but couldn’t tell if she was for real or just drafting behind Blaqstarr. Question answered.

05. “Defiance (for Elise Sunderhuse)” – Emperor X (Buy Double Cassette (limited edition!))
Lyrics reproduced with permission from the artist.

General Doom got another leg caught.
He was arming kids (who were) begging for artillery shells to kick around
and building white crosses to commemorate the martyrs’ brigade
in the Red Crescent-bearing ambulances.
It’s better than working in the mines all day.

One vehicle’s down.
We were praising the Lord when we heard the report
of the trucks and the cranes and the double-yellow lines
and the fear and the love and the violence dissolved.
We’re told that we’ve learned a great deal,
and we’re told that your loss is collateral cost,
and stochastically inevitable,
and the price that we pay for breathing,
but we defy.

Punk Haitians kicking under concrete
charge their phones and send another text feed to the flotilla
and it’s out, but time’s not a disease.
It’s an ordered state. It’s a firm substrate.
It’s a shocking priceless wasteland,
and it’s where we’ll raise our kids and get lost and defy.

Letters, pixels, texts
crystallize and mutate.
Patterns amplifying forever.

04. (2010 Best Backing Vocals) “Wrote A Song For Everyone” – Mavis Staples (Buy)
An unearned visit from someone much wiser than you. Me too.

03. “Thought Of U Featuring Yvette Jarvis and Michael Beals” – Hellafactz (Buy)
So listen. I like Empire State Of Mind as much as the next guy, but there’s a problem with it that was pretty obvious from the start: It’s a big song. It’s a drop-everything-and-throw-your-hands-in-the-air song, which is great at a concert, an awards show or a promotional video but after the first flush of success feels kind of presumptuous. If you aren’t from The City or employed by its Chamber of Commerce this might not be a good choice for your next party mix. You want something that will stay in the background but still get heads nodding, something that will work its way into your guests without seeming intrusive, something like this song right here – a celebration of the much less heralded city of Halifax. Because let’s face it: Five years from now will you be more interested in hearing An Anthem or a little something you can throw on at your barbecue?

02. (2010 Best New Artist) “Heal My Hand” – Falklands (MySpace page)
This year’s proof that rock and roll isn’t dead (yet). Four minutes of smoking hot guitars, kick ass drums and a singer wailing to his love for one more chance. Off of an EP, which was followed up later in the year by Think About It, which – this is still hard to believe – can be downloaded for free as of this writing. (By the way, 2:39 of “It’s Good to See You” is 2010’s Best Second in Music.) It is the most outrageously, extravagantly generous offer in music this year, and even though you can get it at no cost you really should throw a few bucks in the hat when you grab it. Encourage them. Help them tour. These guys deserve to be huge.

01. “Blue Sky On Holiday” – Annemarie (Buy)
Wins by the Ben-Hur Rule. Ben-Hur was, of course, the winner of the 1960 Best Picture Oscar. It is characteristic of Best Picture winners because the Academy seems to go to great lengths to make sure the honoree is always – always – a movie with a message. It has to be something deep that tells us something timeless about the human condition, it must reach for great things, and it most certainly must not be frivolous or silly. You will likely never see, for instance, a screwball comedy even get nominated, because Best Picture has to be Heavy.

That’s true in other are forms as well. You won’t see lighter stuff at the top of the heap. The awards for Best have to be reserved for those things that, in the minds of the voters, best justify the existence of the art form itself. Fluff is by definition excluded.

I think that’s bunk.

In music, don’t you think some allegedly insubstantial stuff has held up pretty well? Doesn’t the golden age of Motown sound pretty good, aren’t the Monkees still a gas, and doesn’t even that era’s ultimate expression of disposable bubblegum pop – “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies – still sound pretty good?

I try to keep that in mind with my Best Song pick. I try not to exclude anything; I try to pick the song that gives me the most listening enjoyment, whatever that nebulous thing is, during the year – even if it seems like nothing more than a confection. Because it might hold up better than most folks expect, and the favored heavyweight might not.

Could a three minute ray of sunshine like this be the best song of the year? Sure – for the same reason Some Like it Hot was the best film of 1959.

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