Top Songs of 2010: #22-18

I’m feeling melancholy today, and I know exactly why. Sure, some of it has to do with having drank heavily last night. Some of it is probably my continued lack of any kind of schedule while my winter break endures. Yet, there is a concrete, clearly identifiable thorn in my side. A kind of nostalgia, or weariness, or longing. There are all kinds of things I should be doing at the moment: paying bills, getting things from the store, responding to official e-mails. But on days like this, at times like this, in moods like this, I’ve always taken comfort in the music. So for my own edification, as well as hopefully yours, I’m going to add another five videos to my “Best of 2010” YouTube playlist.

Neon Indian's Alan Palomo, in need of yet another cassette version of Thriller.

#22 – “Sleep Paralysist” by Neon Indian

My annual concession to chillwave, Denton, Texas’ one-man band Neon Indian takes the place that Small Black held last year. Ironically, Neon Indian’s debut album was released last year and Small Black’s came out this year. I guess that proves my contrarian bonafides. “Sleep Paralysist” was the only song NI put out this year, it was co-written and recorded with Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear, and as far as I’m concerned it’s heads and shoulders above any of the material from last year’s Psychic Chasms. The song kicks in with some luscious layered synths, and the staggering arpeggios are eventually smoothed out by the time the chorus hits. It becomes massive and cathartic while remaining entirely danceable.

What separates this song, to me, from the sterility of much of the rest of chillwave’s output is the emotion. There’s a strain, a sense of yearning, that pervades singer Alan Palomo’s voice throughout the song. The lyrics are about the desperation of fantasy. Palomo is fantasizing or dreaming about a lover, but instead of relishing in the happier moments of the fantasy – as one would expect from a fantasy – he spends his time worrying about the ephemerality of the dream. The chorus goes, “Don’t sleep / Won’t be you when I’m awake so just / don’t sleep / In the morning this will all seem fake so…” And one of my favorite lines from the verses makes his dream love feel so hollow, “Empty daydream that keeps playing on repeat / Each passing loop, more decayed, less complete / And you don’t weep / And I don’t weep / They don’t weep.” It helps you rethink the familiar, but thanks to the music also gives you the opportunity to groove along.

#21 – “Rill Rill” by Sleigh Bells

The lyrics here are nowhere near as interesting as Neon Indian’s, but the song is just so wonderfully constructed. Sleigh Bells appeared on my list from last year with the earth-rattling “Crown on the Ground,” which I still absolutely love. Much of the rest of their debut album, Treats, is more in that bone-crunching vein. And there are some great songs in that vein, like “Tell ‘Em,” “Infinity Guitars,” and “A/B Machines.” But nothing sounds anything like “Rill Rill.” Originally titled “Ring Ring” when the demo version was released in 2009, the song is built around the chillest of samples from Funkadelic’s 1971 classic, “Can You Get to That.” “Rill Rill” is filled with lyrical non sequiturs like, “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces” and “We’re just the weathermen / You make the wind blow,” but it builds an atmosphere of relaxation that stands out starkly from the rest of Sleigh Bells’ catalogue. They get a lot of criticism for being a flash in the pan, and only time will tell if there is a rich career waiting for this duo, but “Rill Rill” rises beyond the gimmick into something that I can see myself returning to willingly many years down the line.

#20 – “Something I’m Not” by Penguin Prison

Penguin Prison is another one-man act, this time from the streets of New York City. He may not have the largest profile at the moment, but he’s currently touring with Girl Talk (which means I’ll see him in about a week!) and his official debut album should drop in a few months, so his star is undoubtedly on the rise. And with songs like this, it’s easy to see why. The song’s lyrics detail a nasty argument between lovers, stating, “If we could tie ourselves together / I could become something I’m not / And it’s the last thing I remember / How to become something I’m not.” The way I read it, that essentially is saying that being with his partner makes him a better person, but during the fight that’s not something on his mind. However, it’s the song’s production that elevates it. Perhaps it’s not surprising that someone whose musical career has crossed paths with both Alicia Keys and Q-Tip would come up with R&B-influenced dance music. I’d like to think it has something to do with his liberal arts education at Bard College (go liberal arts!). Either way, Chris Glover (aka Penguin Prison) layers his beat with synths, bells, static, shakers, clicks and vocal harmonies, among other interesting sounds. Sonically, you’re kept on your toes the entire time both intellectually and physically (get it?), and really, what more can you ask for?

#19 – “Invent It All Again” by Faded Paper Figures

What a delightful little electro-indie-pop dittie! FPF is the bi-coastal collaboration between a UCLA med student and her English Professor friend at Yale University. Apparently they have a couple of other songs that are much more popular, but somehow this is the one I stumbled across. It touches that part of me with a built-in weakness for all things poppy; this song is like one big long hook filled with clear male-female harmonies, chimes, tambourines, handclaps and major-key synthesizers. In fact, sonically it reminds a lot of “Something I’m Not” except with a smile instead of a frown. “Invent” shares the same willingness to explore instrumentation and arrangement, and doesn’t settle into one particular style. It just bounces and hops its way through dozens of different sounds, anchored by the winning delivery of Heather Alden. Just try listening to this and not smiling. You can’t. I love it.

How fucking cool is this woman!?

#18 – “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae featuring Big Boi

There’s no one like Janelle Monae. Not now and not ever before. She is more eclectic than The White Album, exploring classical, folk, funk, rock and R&B on this year’s The ArchAndroid. And just check out this video from The Late Show With David Letterman to see one of the greatest live performers around today. She is incredibly dynamic and promises a bright future for the R&B genre – loosely defined as it must be when applied to her. And she doesn’t get funkier or catchier than in this stellar single. The horns are sharp, the drums are irresistible, and Monae delivers her vocals in a melodic rap, but the outro also mixes in strings, turntable scratching and a ukulele. There’s even room for a wisely brief guest verse from MC-of-the-year Big Boi. Though her album hit the Top 20 in the US, this song has been far from ubiquitous, and it entirely deserves to be remembered as one of the biggest successes of the year. … Oh man, 17 songs better than this one?! I’ll say it again: What a year for music!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Aurora on January 7, 2011 at 1:01 am

    I can’t imagine what you’ve got lined up for us since you’re boldly ranking them ahead of Janelle Monae. She is awesome! I wish I could have seen her live last year…. keeping my fingers crossed for 2011. Maybe at ACL???


  2. Yeah, damn I’m very curious to see what the top 17 are then if Ms. Monae is at 18. I had the privilege of seeing her live twice this year and she is absolutely amazing. I haven’t been this excited about a new artists in god knows how long.


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