Top Songs of 2010: #32-28

And like that, 2011 is under way. The beginning of a new year always feels a little strange – today I wrote my rent check with “1/3/11” as the date. The “10” I had taken for granted for so long vanishing never to return again. And with the first Monday of the new year, the cycle has started over again: new bands, new shows, new news. Yet, I’m plowing ahead. 2010 doesn’t vanish, it’s just beginning the process of moving from present to past, and really, that’s what retrospectives like this one are all about. Perhaps January 2011 is really the ideal time to conduct a year-end list, you know, now that the year’s over. So with this installment, we’ll actually take our first big bite out of some of the bigger acts to come through 2010 (with one unknown thrown in for good measure). I had some transcendent moments with this music this year, but again, 2010 was just that good. Hopefully time just makes it better.

#32 – “Horchata” by Vampire Weekend

I can already hear the criticisms arising over this one. First off, technically it was released as a leaked single in late 2009 so it’s been with us for over 13 months now. Secondly, and more importantly, aren’t there better songs off of Contra? “Giving Up the Gun” got a fancy video treatment that somehow made tennis seem even more elitist than it already is, and actually was my favorite song from the album for a time. “Cousins” is also a killer track – probably the most energetic cut from Contra, and it truly is right up my alley. “Holiday” was also, apparently, a single. Looking back on it, I’m really amazed at how many great songs are packed into one album. I think at the time of its released, we were all so concerned with how it stacked up against their debut that it was easy to overlook the content in favor of focusing on the inevitable hype/backlash surrounding its number one position on Billboard. No matter how this stacks up to the debut album, it’s clear that VW are fantastic songwriters and will probably continue to be forces on the pop/rock music scene.

So why “Horchata” after having extolled the virtues of so many other tracks from the album. For me it comes down to the arrangement. This song is a perfect example of what VW does best – gorgeous melody, flaunting their Ivy League vocabulary, nontraditional subject matter (in this case, the inevitable arrival of spring) – but the arrangement is built so subtly and beautifully. How many different sounds can you identify over the course of the song? Strings, flutes, marimbas, various other synthesizer noises. And it’s not a straight build, either. Sometimes there are drums, sometimes the drums give way to strings. A beautiful flute melody gets introduced toward the very end of the song, and is preceded by a gorgeous counterpoint in the verse before. This live version performed at LA’s KCRW reveals the song’s true elegance, and this one for Qtv shows its simple beauty. Vampire Weekend proved with this one that they never take the easy way out – it would have been easy to repeat the same musical arrangement throughout the entirety of the song as most bands would have done – and their music is so much more beautiful because of it.

No, this isn't a particularly energetic Fleet Foxes concert! This is Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles, the (bearded) face of punk music in 2010.

#31 – “A More Perfect Union” by Titus Andronicus

Titus’ The Monitor remains one of my favorite albums of this year, as an earlier blog post elaborated upon. I love the twin conceits of homesickness as the lead singer contemplates his New Jersey origins from his new Boston home, and the divisiveness of contemporary America as explored through the lens of the Civil War. Titus jump back and forth through time and place over the course of the album with power and poise. And yet, there isn’t a single that truly stands on its own as a “song” (it’s almost the ideological opposite of Contra in that sense). No song is under 5 minutes, and the longest clocks in at 14 minutes, without ever feeling boring. The album is almost entirely devoid of hooks; each song is like a suite of different song fragments and ideas that somehow always turn into a cohesive whole. It shows that punk music can still be intelligent while also being moshed to (as I experienced when I saw them at Emo’s here in Austin).

And still, the album’s leadoff track, “A More Perfect Union,” sets the tone perfectly while standing well on its own. After a reading from an 1838 Abraham Lincoln speech, it crashes in with some of the most ferocious guitar of the year. The lyrics make references to Jersey institutions like the Fung Wah bus or the Newark Bears (as well as my home state’s Merritt Parkway). Before we know there’s a wordless singalong, a trick ending that only sees the track catch its second wind before ending in a rousing rendition of the Battle Cry of Freedom and reprise of the opening guitar riff. It never once leaves you bored for the whole of its seven minutes and only portends an album that extends from the high bar it sets. If more punk sounded like this, I might actually listen to it.

#30 – “Yellow Tape” (Grizzly Bear Remix) by Metermaids

Here’s your unknown. This track was a brief hit on the Hype Machine, but its hard to find much about it anywhere beyond a simple posting of the mp3. I know that Metermaids are a couple of white guys from New York City making hip-hop (though I thought this whole year until now that they were black – I guess I hear it now…). I also know that you might consider this a bit of a cheat. Of course I’d place this song on my year-end list when it relies heavily on my #1 song from last year.

But Metermaids don’t just use Grizzly Bear as a crutch. In fact, the lyrics are quite inventive. Trading off quatrains, the two members of the group assume the identity of the police officer that stands guard at the yellow tape around a crime scene, the guy that we always see in the background in the movies and TV shows, but often forget is an individual. They do a remarkable job of detailing the conflicting horrors (“Detectives tell me, ‘Son be glad you don’t gotta go in.’ / The window frame is broken and ignorance is golden”) and mundanity of the job (“I’ve been pacing ’round the block / section off the parts you can’t see / waitin’ for crowds to gather round and feelin’ antsy”) and sprinkle in some philosophical musings while they’re at it (“There’s something so intriguing / about watching something bleeding / To reaffirm you’re still there / it’s still air that you’re breathing”). Considering that hip-hop usually combats the position of the police officer, it’s nearly shocking to hear an honest representation of a cop’s point of view, especially one so expertly done. Plus, that sample is siiiick.

#29 – “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem

This is another example of an album that could have spawned multiple entries on this list. This is Happening is hands-down my favorite album of the year. Every track except one is pure gold. “Pow Pow” harkens back to what LCD does best: letting a beat build while spewing some hilariously inane (yet inevitably meaningful) lyrics over the top. “Drunk Girls” should have been a huge rock radio hit (and delivered one of the best music videos of the year). And then there’s the dual Pitchfork-approved centerpieces of “I Can Change” and “All I Want” (that live video is from the concert of theirs I attended at the Hollywood Palladium in June! The second of three times I saw them this year.).

And yet, “Dance” will always be the seminal track from this album for me. As with the earlier selections from VW and Titus (and the one that’s about to follow, strangely enough), it’s the lead track from the album. James Murphy’s philosophy of repetition is in full force here, letting the song stretch out to nearly nine full minutes while rarely deviating from the basic rhythm track (the opposite approach of Titus). Three minutes in, though, the song kicks into overdrive, changing entirely without changing at all. Ultimately, the title says it all – the song keeps us dancing throughout – and may as well be LCD’s motto. This one says it all.

Here is Caribou's Dan Snaith, one of rock's biggest nerds, doing something probably related to his dissertation in math. Yeah, he has a PhD. What have you done with your life?

#29 – “Odessa” by Caribou

For the first time, this year I voted on Pitchfork’s year-end reader’s poll. One of the questions they asked me to vote on was “Who was the greatest live band of the year?” and without hesitation I answered “Caribou.” Honestly, if you’d asked me in April, I never would have guessed that would be the case. (Here is a live version of “Odessa” and here is one of “Sun,” also from this year’s Swim album. The quality on the latter isn’t great, but it much more accurately captures the feel of being at their show.) I was truly blown away by how radically the band expanded on songs that had frankly seemed plain and boring to me on the album. It breathed new life into the material and made me appreciate the recording in a new way. They were so good that I saw them in Austin in October for a second time, after already catching their show in May in LA.

“Odessa,” though, was the only song on the album for which that hadn’t been a problem anyway. The song’s layers intertwine throughout in a mesmerizing way, from the recurring rhythmic pattern on the bells to the recorder solo after the second chorus with the insistent bass refrain never once letting up. Everything just melts and builds around the rhythm section. It’s easy to get caught up in the dreamlike aspect of the song’s sonic textures, though, without realizing what the lyrics are. The song is about a woman in an abusive relationship finally breaking away to achieve the freedom she deserves: “Saving up for the day that she goes / the day that she stands up for everything that she chose / Taking the kids and driving away / Turning ’round the life she let him siphon away.” Thus the song is cathartic in more ways than one, making Caribou’s emergence as one of indie rock’s top acts quite deserved.

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One response to this post.

  1. Gotta second the love for Dance Yrself Clean, definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album (although I think Pow Pow is my fave overall). I remember the first time I listened to Dance Yrself Clean, turning the volume way up to hear what he’s saying in the beginning and then being blown away when the drums and synth kick in. James Murphy you crafty bastard.

    I hadn’t heard that Caribou yet, but I really like. Thanks for the rec.

    Reply

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