Friday, December 10, 2010

2010's Top 20 Singles

20) Eminem featuring Rihanna - “Love the Way You Lie” (Aftermath/Interscope)
I have an odd admission about this song: I’ve never heard it on the radio. But oh my goodness, I’ve heard the opening seven seconds what seems like hundreds of times. A co-worker mixes a weekly hip-hop countdown show just outside my cube area at my office, and I swear that this year the only time I’ve ever heard him assembling something besides the host’s voice track is when he’d cue up the intro to “Love the Way You Lie.” The first time I ever heard the song all the way through is when I saw the video one night on MTV Hits. And it got stuck in my brain for a couple of days. It’s easily the best track Eminem has done since “Lose Yourself.” And considering Rihanna’s history, it’s a perfect song for her to supply the hook.

19) Josh Ritter - “Change of Time” (Pytheas Recordings)
Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away wasn’t as strong as his 2007 effort The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. However, the first single from So Runs, “Change of Time,” is a total standout. It builds from a sole acoustic guitar and Ritter’s soothing voice in the first verse all the way to massive of electric guitars and bashing drums that (this is gonna sound weird) reminds me of a ticking clock. Ritter’s drummer keeps hitting the ride symbol and all I can think of is the ugly faux grandfather clock that was in the living room of my house growing up. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Ritter was thinking of when he penned this song about dreaming of one’s love. Yet it’s another example of what makes music great—it gives the listener the ability to place his own life experience into the song and identify with it.

18) Robert Plant - “Angel Dance” (Rounder)
17) Carolina Chocolate Drops - “Hit Em Up Style” (Nonesuch)
16) J.C Brooks & The Uptown Sound - “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” (J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound)

2010 was a pretty damn good year for covers. So much so that for the first time in 14 years I have three of them on this year’s singles list. (The three from 1996, you ask? Oasis’ “Cum on Feel the Noize,” Prince’s “Betcha by Golly Wow” and The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly.”)

Robert Plant continues his late career renaissance with his Buddy Miller-produced album Band of Joy. The ex-Led Zeppelin singer has excelled at finding interesting collaborators and picking interesting material to cover over the past decade. “Angel Dance" is originally from Los Lobos’ 1990 album The Neighborhood. I’ve given that album the short end of the stick over the years because it didn't seem as strong as 1987's By the Light of the Moon and then paled in hindsight compared to 1992's masterpiece Kiko. I’ve gained new respect over the years for The Neighborhood because I’ve seen the Lobos perform many of the songs, outstripping their studio incarnations. I saw Los Lobos at Bowery Ballroom back in August and seven songs into their set singer-guitarist David Hidalgo made a comment about Robert Plant giving him a call saying he wanted to cover one of their songs. I had to chuckle when Hidalgo said, “Wow, it turned out really good,” because he’s exactly right.

Carolina Chocolate Drops are a string band from North Carolina that, according to their bio, does “traditional music from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas” with the occasional modern song thrown in. And what a modern song to take on in Blue Cantrell’s 2001 smash “Hit ’Em Up Style.” The Drops transform this ladies’ revenge song into something that sounds like it could have been broadcast on radio back in the 20s and 30s. (Well, except for the reference to Neiman-Marcus.)

And speaking of transforming, I’m sure that Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had to be ecstatic with how the Chicago soul combo J.C Brooks & The Uptown Sound rearranged the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot opening track “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” into an infectious old school R&B song. And as much I consider myself to be a huge Wilco fan, it took until the fourth time I heard this cover to figure out that Brooks sings a verse from the A Ghost is Born song “Theologians” as the bridge. That totally blew my mind. It’s rare that a cover will show a song in a completely new light that makes me rethink the original. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is precisely one of those.

15) The National - “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (4ad)
It’s taken me a while to get into The National, mostly because the baritone voice of Matt Berninger. Whenever I heard the guy sing I thought, “Is he bored with his own lyrics? The guys in his band? The last season of Survivor? The service at his coffee shop in Brooklyn?” It took their contribution to the Red Hot compilation Dark is the Night, “Around the Bend,” for me to crack the key to Berninger’s voice. That newfound keymaster ability made The National’s latest album High Violet the first one I was able to listen to all the way through. (I do plan on revisiting a couple of their older albums once this year’s list is done.) Now that I have a feel for the voice, I just have to figure out what the heck Berninger is singing about. Here’s a “Bloodbuzz Ohio” sample lyric: “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees/I’ll never marry but Ohio don't remember me.” Huh?

14) Vampire Weekend - “Giving Up the Gun” (XL)
This New York quartet avoided a total sophomore slump with their second album Contra. It’s true that most of it was more of that Afro-pop-lite that they perfected to a T on their 2008 self-titled. That didn’t take away from me enjoying tracks like “Cousins” and “Holiday.” (Well, in the case of “Holiday,” I ceased enjoying it about the 805th time I saw that Tommy Hilfiger Christmas ad or heard that Honda radio spot that featured the song’s opening lines. Now the initial guitar line makes me want to go all Ladysmith on someone’s ass.) My first listen through the album I almost thought something was wrong with the CD when track eight started. There was some weird drum machine loop, followed by a whole messy of dancy-type programming. This sounded nothing like Vampire Weekend, except when Erza Koenig’s vocals came in singing about someone’s rusty sword. (Hmm, I wonder what he could be talking about.) “Giving up the Gun” was that track, and I think my Led Zeppelin In Through the Out Door theory can explain my love of this song. Back in college (a time we like to call the Reagan years), someone scrawled a note on 106 VIC’s vinyl copy of In Through the Out Door—“This is my favorite Led Zeppelin album, because it doesn’t sound like Led Zeppelin.” That’s exactly why I loved (heck, still love) that album, and it’s precisely why I dig “Giving up the Gun.” I’d love to hear an album of songs like this from these guys. Oh, and I’d like more videos like the bizarre one for “Gun” that features a Jonas brother, a member of Wu-Tang Clan and the dude dating Taylor Swift. But have them wear longer shorts next time, thanks.

13) The Hold Steady - “Hurricane J” (Vagrant)
12) The Baseball Project (featuring Craig Finn) - "Don't Call them Twinkies" (YepRoc)
The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn can spin a tale in the space of three and half minutes unlike any songwriter working today. These two tracks show off his talent in spades. “Hurricane J” is the story tale of an older dude dating a younger woman and trying to nudge her into a better life—and admitting to himself that he’s not the man to help her get there. His description of that breakup conversation is a thing of beauty: “I know you’re gonna say what I know you’re gonna say/I know you’ll look at the ground, I know you'll probably cry/You're a beautiful girl and you're a pretty good waitress/but Jessie, I don’t think I’m the guy.”

In “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” Finn penned the lyrics to a gritty track written by The Baseball Project singer-guitarist Steve Wynn per the request of the band’s resident Minnesota Twins fan, drummer Linda Pitmon. I wish that the lyrics were on the web somewhere, as they are an amazing history lesson of the three times the Twins have gone to the World Series. Finn nails all the details of certain plays (“Ron Gant was out” is something Twins fans have yelled before, I imagine) and the vibe of the tightly fought series that went seven games in 1987 and 1991. My favorite line just might be “I’ve never seen something so lame as that Fonda-hawk chop.” Yet with all the nuances of Twins lore he crams into the lyrics, the whole thing is damn catchy. I found myself singing along to the chorus upon my first listen. This bodes well for the second Baseball Project album (Volume 2, natch) that is due out in February.

11) Tired Pony - “Dead American Writers” (Mom + Pop)
There are certain years where I sit down to write this list and it just pours out of me. I’ve found myself up at 1:00 a.m., pouring another glass of Diet Coke just because I know I’ve struck a rich vein of creativity and I don’t want to lose it by going to sleep. Other years, errrrr, not so much. This year, for example. It’s been like, well, I can’t even come up with a good cliché to describe how hard it’s been to extract the words from my brain and get them to come out my fingers into this here ancient keyboard. When you’re checking your Twitter feed once every six minutes or so because you’ve written only a sentence in a half hour and you’re desperate for anything to take your brain away from writing…well, it’s not good. In the midst of my mind needing some Metamucil, I started looking over the lyrics to Tired Pony’s “Dead American Writers.” And I’ll be damned if Gary Lightbody didn’t nail the pains of writers block in a song, um, about dead writers. Check out the first and second verses:

“Here's to every time that you rock a boat
Here's to every word that you ever wrote
There were clues but it was never clear
You've got to choose your own way out of here

I've been waiting for the spark myself,
I've been scrambling in the dark for health
I have read your words a thousand times
All this spark but smashed up love and crime.”

Waiting for the spark myself. Fucking a, Gary, I feel your pain. Thankfully, I listened to this insanely catchy song enough to help break that block. I mean, if I hadn’t, you’d be holding this list in February.

10) Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - “The Game Gets Old” (Daptone)
I love, love, LOVE how this song starts. There’s this crescendo of horns and strings, as if it’s the opening of a classic film that (said in a big announcer voice) is totally important and requires your attention. Come to think of it, Sharon Jones is a New York classic (MTA and Rikers Island worker hits it big) who should really capture everyone’s attention as soon as she opens her mouth. Jones usually comes across as big and as brassy as her band, yet in “The Game Gets Old” she tones it down a notch to inhabit the character of a wounded lover. It’s a tremendous performance by Jones and company. And while the entire I Learned the Hard Way album is solid, they don’t come close to capturing the magic this opener provides.

9) Mumford & Sons - “Little Lion Man” (Glassnote)

Okay, I am still amazed that a song with such a blatant “fuck” in the chorus became a hit.


Let me rephrase that.

I’m amazed that a rock song with such a blatant “fuck” in the chorus became a hit.


Wait. Let me try that again.

I’m amazed that a rock song that uses a banjo as its lead instrument that contains such a blatant “fuck” in the chorus became a hit.

(Thinking some more.)

Ladies, it’s because that Marcus Mumford guy is a cutie, right? Thought so.

8) Lady Gaga featuring Beyonce - “Telephone” (Interscope)
I’d like to apologize for my dissing of Lady Gaga last year. I just didn’t understand how smartly she has developed her persona. It’s like watching a master’s class in marketing. Make one crazy video after another, upping the ante of shock value and/or surprise each time. How did I not grasp how awesome it was to wear a gown made of Kermits? And the meat dress? Holy shit, that is either the stupidest thing ever, or the best gag of the decade. I’m still not sure. I can pinpoint exactly when I started to grasp the whole Gaga thing. I was up in the middle of the night in the late winter (not surprising with my proclivity for insomnia) and as I often do when I turn on the TV that late (or early, whatever) I punch in the numbers for MTV Hits. It was the exact moment the “Telephone” video started. Seven minutes later, I was converted. And then the next day I had to download the song. The way the producers turned a ring and a dial tone into a hook of the backing track is truly inventive. This is one of the few songs on this year’s list that sounds good on the dance floor—but is an even better experience in headphones.

7) Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - “Bottled in Cork” (Matador)
If someone asked me, “Hey, can you sum up Ted Leo’s solo career into three minutes?” I would give them an MP3 of this song. (Or say to them, “Who the hell are you, and how did you get into my living room?”) It’s as if Leo decided to make a greatest hits album in one song. He packed his pop, punk, political and heart-on-the-sleeve emotional sides all into this track. And even though the final chorus (which doesn’t pop up elsewhere in the song, so maybe it’s not a true chorus at all?) lasts for about 30 seconds, I could easily listen to that line “Tell the bartender, I think I’m falling in love” for another two or three minutes. (Not that I’ve ever thought of uttering that line. Um, how about we forget that last sentence happened and we move onto #6? Excellent. Join me at the next paragraph.)

6) B.o.B featuring Bruno Mars - “Nothing on You” (Atlantic)
I could type out a few words about how B.o.B. is pretty multi-talented guy that has a smooth flow when he rap and how easy he makes the transition to singing within this song. Or how awesome it is that he namechecks Wonder Woman and Mister Fantastic from the comic world. Or how Bruno Mars and his production team The Smeezingtons are the hitmakers of this year. But really, this song is up this high because it sounds awesome when it’s blasting out of car speakers and that Mars guy has a great voice. So, there you have it.

5) LCD Soundsystem - “I Can Change” (DFA/EMI)
"I Can Change" bears more than a passing resemblance to Eurythmics’ “Love is a Stranger.” I have no problem with that. “Love is a Stranger” is my second favorite Eurythmics song behind “Would I Lie to You,” so that puts “I Can Change” in good company. I don’t know how LCD frontman James Murphy gets his voice so damn high on the line “hoping and hoping and hoping/the feeling goes away.” It could be some sort of studio trickery, but Murphy seems so into playing the character of a guy who’ll do anything to save a relationship falling apart that I can imagine him pushing himself to hit that high note without any extra computer help. Oh, and did I mention it’s a nifty dance number too? Nothing like dancing to someone’s depression!

4) Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - “I Should Have Known It” (Reprise)
The first time I heard this single from Petty and company's new album Mojo, I was not happy. I even wrote on my Twitter, “Uh-oh—TP w/o hooks? Not good.” Where was the classic Petty chorus that I would want to sing at the top of my lungs while driving my car with the windows down? I just didn’t hear anything that would stick with me. Then I finally watched their performance on Saturday Night Live. And holy shit, I was wrong. Everything about the song is a hook. Mike Campbell and Scott Thurston’s intertwined guitar lines, Steve Ferrone's Bonhamesque thump, Petty’s venomous vocal…fuck me, it’s all fantastic. I even recorded the SNL performance to put it my iTunes, just so I could relive that adrenaline rush again and again. Petty hasn’t written something this nasty since Echo. It’s about damn time, Tom.

3) Superchunk - “Digging for Something” (Merge)
Decades from now when I listen to “Digging for Something” (and trust me, it’s that good to make such an outrageous claim…which is that I’ll have my hearing in decades from now) it will always make me think of the summer of 2010. Mac McCaughan’s lyrics “We were dancing on the propane tank/Everybody in the half-light out on the lawn/They were kicking up dust ‘til they were gone” and “It’s just getting dark and you’re waking up, waking up, waking up” instantly take me to a summer bash somewhere. (It’s not a bash I would have been at this summer since I was on the wagon, but the alternate universe version of me must have been drunk all the time, so I’m sure he pulled a daysleeper few times.) And the backing vocal from The Mountain GoatsJohn Darnielle is so infectious that I can actually picture him smiling in the studio while he was belting it out. And that puts a smile on my face. Even if I did spend an entire summer without a single beer. Okay, let’s focus here…

2) Cee-Lo Green - “Fuck You” (Elektra)
I have one question. Does anyone think “Forget You” is a suitable edit? Hands? Anyone? Yeah, I thought not. Good. So let’s just enjoy this insanely catchy, insanely filthy song in high rotations in our iPods and YouTube and our brains. Fuck the FCC.

1) B.o.B featuring Hayley Williams - “Airplanes” (Atlantic)
Again, I wish I could come up with some lengthy essay about this song and how B.o.B. is sharing about his life before a record deal. But I got nothing. It’s just a great pop song with a great hook sung by the young lady that fronts Paramore. Jeebus, this song just sounds so fucking good when it’s blasting out of a rental car as you’re driving through the sunny streets of Austin. I’m sure a few of you, dear readers, are probably sick of this song. But I’ve never even heard it on the radio. I first heard it walking around an Old Navy while buying a pair of pants. I had to use the Shazam feature on my iPhone to figure out the track’s name. I still have never heard it on the radio, so I guess I’ll have to spin it 1,000 times on my iPod to catch up with the rest of America.

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