Top Songs of 2010: #17-13

I’m not really sure about what kind of intro to give today, so let’s dive in. I’ve thought long and hard about the order after the Janelle Monae fans reacted with such surprise on the last post. So I’ve shifted some stuff around. You’ll see three artists with whom you’re not familiar, and then two of the bigger names of the year. Excited? I know; me too!

#17 “Young Blood” by The Naked & Famous

This is 2010’s version of “Dominos” by the Big Pink (while also recalling quite a bit of Passion Pit and MGMT’s first album). It’s just a massive, synthetic anthem that makes you feel like a teenager all over again – the good parts. And yet, unlike “Dominos,” this is a synthetic anthem with heart. It makes you ache and yearn. It acknowledges the downsides of being young with lines like, “The mood it changes like the wind / Hard to control when it begins” and “Can’t help myself but count the flaws / Claw my way out through these walls.” But it also goes for the passion of youth: “We lie beneath the stars at night / Our hands gripping each other tight / You keep my secrets hope to die / Promises, swear them to the sky.” And there’s the triumphant “Yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus mixed with those ringing, processed guitars and massive drum sound that all celebrate the joys that us adults can only hope someday to return to.

The duo at the core of The Naked and Famous, in their native New Zealand.

The Naked & Famous (possibly named after a Presidents of the USA song?) are a new group out of New Zealand, and this was their first single released. When it came out back in June, it debuted at #1 there, and has since won the Silver Scroll award for best New Zealand song of the year – an award that has been previously won by…no one I’ve ever heard of. But still, that’s gotta count for something. They’re a smash hit at home and in Australia, and are about to embark on a huge tour of the UK. Whether this song ever eventually breaks in the U.S. remains to be seen. Their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You was released back in September, but I don’t think it’s come out here yet. So keep a look out, and don’t sleep on these party people.

#16 – “WHALE” by Yellow Ostrich

Yellow Ostrich is the moniker of Alex Schaaf, a Wisconsiner (?), Wisconsinite (?)…fuck it, he’s from Wisconsin. Now though he’s joined the Brooklyn indie crowd and has put together many album’s worth of fantastic material over the course of this year. The standout, far and away, is this gorgeous number which first appeared sometime around March (and is on The Mistress, which you can download now, or get a hard copy of in February). It’s built around a pretty simple (though multi-tracked) drum part, which is initially supported only by Schaaf’s looping “oh-oh” harmonies (a trademark that appears on many of his other songs as well). Perhaps this song appeals to the a cappella lover within me, since nearly the entire first half of the song is constructed solely from vocals and drums. Finally, just before the 2-minute mark, he takes out the drums, and plugs in a guitar. When all the pieces finally coalesce on the song’s outro (plus some cymbal and a new vocal part), the sound is overwhelming. Of course, none of it would work at all if the melody on which the song rests weren’t really fucking gorgeous. Schaaf sings with a plaintive strain that at the very least passes for earnestness, and adds to the emotional punch of the song. And that’s something you probably didn’t expect to hear about a love song to a whale.

#15 – “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People

It kills me not to put this song in the Top 10. I’ve probably listened to this thing five dozen times (that’s a lot for me), just repeating it over and over again. It’s so damn catchy and has the perfect mid-tempo swagger that appeals to me. Yet, the lyrics seem like nonsense – and not the good, abstract, absurdist kind. It seems like FTP is trying to tell a story (maybe about hunting? or school shootings?), but I have no idea what it is. All I do know is that chorus is insanely awesome. This is the best bass line I’ve heard all year, and is complemented by a perfect no-frills drum part. It’s got whistling to go along with the laid-back-to-the-point-of-being-bored vocals. The whole song just goes down crazy easy.

And yet, it never became the summer anthem it was hyped as. After a successful SXSW for this LA foursome, they were covered by NPR, the Guardian, and leading indie blog Pretty Much Amazing. Each site promised it would be a ubiquitous presence on summer mixes. Maybe it was. Maybe fandom didn’t happen in isolation. But it certainly didn’t take the world by storm. Perhaps we’re in a different world now – a world where only one rock song makes Billboard’s year-end top 20 biggest singles of the year (that Train song, if you were wondering), and rock n’ roll just doesn’t cut it anymore. It doesn’t unite the masses or soundtrack our experiences. If it was going to be anything, I figured it would be this catchy, if ultimately unexciting chill factory. But that’s why I don’t work in A&R. Instead, I just listen. And with Foster the People, I like what I hear. If you want to hear them too, my West Coast friends, they will be appearing at LA’s The Echo every Wednesday for the rest of January and Costa Mesa’s Detroit Bar every Monday.

#14 – “Shutterbugg” by Big Boi ft/ Cutty

I owe Big Boi an apology. Back when he and Andre 3000 comprised one of rap’s greatest duos, Outkast, I always identified much more strongly with Andre. He always seemed like the crazy genius of the group, and I thought Big Boi was there more to provide some hardcore hip-hop cred. He just seemed more traditional (and I suppose he was, but that’s not hard when compared to Andre 3000), even when he was putting out anthems like “The Way You Move.” And then he released this year’s Sir Luscious Leftfoot. Holy shit. Big Boi proved himself as much a hip-hop composer as Kanye West did this year; it was a great year for ground-breaking, progressive hip-hop. He manages voices, effects, beats, and sounds in ways that pushes the genre in new and interesting directions.

What? He's cold.

As he says in one of the other tracks on the album, “I write knockout songs; you spit punchlines for money” and “Shutterbugg” is a perfect example of that. There isn’t ever a killer line – nothing that cuts or zings, no particularly striking examples of wordplay. Instead, he has written a knockout song. Like Kanye, Big Boi doesn’t try to prove his flow, he just tries to write the best damn hip-hop song you’ve ever heard. And if he doesn’t, “Shutterbugg” is at least really fucking close. [Also, how sick is that video? Tron dancers, muppet band, the most-pimped ride ever, the best-stocked kegger of all time, and some weird head-related special effects. Totally underrated.]

#13 – “England” by The National

This is a gospel song. It’s a hymn, a sacred listening event that cut you through to your core. Other National songs are defined by the outstanding drumming, the riveting vocal performance, or the moving lyrics. This song doesn’t quite have any of that. Instead, it is just one of the best, most complete songs the band has ever written. That piano intro, the soft strum of the guitar in the background, the string accompaniment; it’s all so beautiful. Each instrument dips into and out of the mix, creating a glorious soundscape. Matt Berninger’s voice is as rich as ever, and the tom-heavy drum part propels the song forward. By the time the horns send the song toward the heavens near the end, it has pierced into your soul. It doesn’t matter what Berninger is saying, but it is all just too perfect.

High Violet may be the best album of The National’s career, which is saying something. Almost any one of the songs could have made this year end list; it’s hard to single out any particular one as an example of why this album is perfect. But “England,” to me, emerges from the rest. It is Beauty come alive and given a name. If you’re not moved by this song, I’m not sure I’m going to be any help to you with anything. You should probably just stop reading now. The Top 12 will have a wide array of musical diversity, but nothing as gorgeous as “England.” Well, one will come close. I bet you can’t wait to see which…

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