Top Songs of 2010: #12-8

I imagine that for some you, I’m trying your patience. “2010 is over!” you’re saying. “This is a time to look forward at the upcoming new year!” While I acknowledge that we’re already getting great leaks/releases from R. Kelly, the Smith Westerns, the Decemberists and the Go! Team, among others. However, I would counter that it’s always a good time to look back. I’m fascinated with the idea of taking stock of our history (as my recent 20-part, 10-week-long series on deserving Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame nominees should indicate), and, well, I’m not yet done. Twelve songs remain! For those of you who read Pitchfork regularly, or have spent the last few weeks scouring year-end lists, there will be few surprises from here on out (though I can think of two that still might not be entirely familiar). The majority of you, though, probably have better things to do with your lives. And that’s where I come in – though I guarantee that there’s at least one song in the next 12 that you’ve heard already. We’re approaching the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the songs and artists that made a tremendous impact this year and that we will return to over and over until we die (morbid but true). Here’s what defined 2010 for me, and possibly you:

Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek making music together as TV on the Radio. Guys, come back! We need you!


#12 – “Absence of Light” by Maximum Balloon

Here’s one of the tracks that got dramatically overlooked at the end of the year. Hell, the whole album was pretty much ignored by most people, it felt like. Maximum Balloon was the side project (one of many) of TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek (a.k.a. the White Guy). Sitek has made his name as TVotR’s producer on several of their ground-breaking recordings from the last decade. They are one of my favorite bands of the 00’s, and Sitek’s production is one of their many vast strengths. However, the band is currently on hiatus while the members pursue other projects. Sitek has remained the most high-profile person from the group and quietly released a collection of songs in August under the name Maximum Balloon. Perhaps not surprisingly, my favorite song, “Absence of Light,” features lead vocals from TV on the Radio lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe.

For all intents and purposes, this could be a TVotR song. Adebimpe’s lead vocals are nearly perfect, as he masters both his high and low registers, shifting between intimacy and frustration as he wraps his voice around what seem like a series of non sequiturs. The musical backing includes a fuzzed-to-the-max bass line played on synthesizers, a funky rhythm guitar, and a series of sound effects that create a broad sonic atmosphere. Multiple guitar lines interweave and adjust the levels of tension. The song’s dynamics rise and fall regularly, but hinge around a killer chorus.

An interesting final note: This song didn’t appear on YouTube until a few days ago – when I had to put it there for this blog. Hopefully no one takes it down, but if you go visit the video online, drop me a note so I know that my (minimal) effort was worth it. And here’s hoping that TV on the Radio get back together soon; the world has been without them for too long.

#11 – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by the Arcade Fire

Here’s a band that was near-impossible to avoid this year. The Arcade Fire is currently the band giving rock n’ roll the most hope from a commercial standpoint. I alluded to rock’s poor chart performance this year (thanks for holding it down, Train!), but there were bright lights. Vampire Weekend hit number one and MGMT hit number two. Though Eminem’s album made the Arcade Fire’s stay brief, they too hit number one, selling 156,000 copies in the US in that first week (big numbers these days), and was only the 14th independent album to hit number one since Billboard starting tracking it in 1991 (VW was number 12). What makes this even more stunning is the critical reception. The Suburbs finished in the top 5 of nearly every major critic’s year-end list from here to Europe, and is undoubtedly one of the few works this year to combine such critical and commercial success.

So you may find it odd that I’m picking the song that sounds the least like the rest of the album to represent them here. Frankly, I don’t think I fully appreciate much of the record. I think particularly that the third quarter of the album drifts wildly (“Month of May” is unfortunately overrated and I can’t even recall the names of melodies of the songs after it). The beginning, though, is packed with some growers that have revealed themselves to me over repeated listens (“Ready to Start,” “Rococo,” “City With No Children,” the last quarter “We Used to Wait” is also tremendous). “Sprawl II,” though, jumped out immediately. Mostly, I think, because it’s AF’s first real use of synthesizers. And they use the hell out of them! The synths here glisten like the brightest, happiest things you’ve ever heard. And when Regine Chassagne is delivering lines like, “Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there’s no end in sight / I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights,” the serve the lighten the mood a bit, to provide some bounce and hope amongst the endless despair of the suburban lifestyle that the album so deftly explores. Chassagne’s suburbs are next to a city that is alternately welcoming and threatening; she’s stuck in limbo between a city that won’t have her and the suburbs she can’t stand. And that’s the unresolving note on which the album ends, essentially. But it’s a song that holds up remarkably well on its own, and could reach a broad audience beyond us diehard rock n’ rollers. Arcade Fire, release this as a single! I can’t believe you haven’t already. Pitchfork readers voted it the song of the year, and if you can please that pretentious bunch (full disclosure: I voted for that poll), you can please everyone.

#10 – “Cry When You Get Older” by Robyn

Robyn, dancing like she's on her own, when she clearly is not. You've got TWO drummers, Robyn! Get one of them to dance with you!

Are you all still with me? I’ve already hit 1,000 words, so apologies for the self-indulgence. I imagine most of you are skimming the summaries anyway. Frankly, I can’t see myself slowing down with this song, either. I was a bit late to the party with Robyn, but holy crap did I make up for it! Swedish songstress Robyn released two EPs this year with a full length in November culling tracks from each and adding some new ones. While the full length Body Talk features a lot of fantastic songs (“Dancing On My Own,” “Hang With Me,” “Dancehall Queen,” “Call Your Girlfriend”), it is lack this amazing gem from the Body Talk Pt 1 EP earlier this year. From the moment I first heard the song, it was a standout to me with its dripping synths slathered all over the thing and a pulsing drum machine beat.

Yet, where the song reaches new heights (and I think this true across nearly all of Robyn’s work) is with the raw emotions that the lyrics convey. Now 31, Robyn seems to be adopting the mantle of pop matriarch by passing on life wisdom to her adoring fans in the least pedantic way possible. The verses paint fairly bleak pictures (“Back in suburbia kids get high and make out on the train / Endless, incomprehensible boredom takes ahold again” – yeah, that’s what I want from my pop songs), and Robyn puts herself vulnerably on the line (“I need some kind of miracle, ‘cuz I lost all my faith in science” – a line that works in so many ways). The chorus doesn’t quite reverse these sentiments, but rather it acknowledges that shit really does suck, especially when you’re young. However, she wants her listeners to embrace that shittiness. “Hey girl in the strobing lights,” Robyn commands, “what your Momma never told ya / Is love hurts when you do it right. You can cry when you get older.” It’s a message that ingeniously flips what seems like a bleak situation calling for a dreary Cure song into one that is positive and life-affirming. The theme of much of Robyn’s work this year has been the positive power of dancing and music; “Cry When You Get Older” exhorts “everybody in the back sing it!” and makes that sound like the solution to every imaginable problem.

#9 – “Do the Astral Plane” by Flying Lotus

The world is a terrible place full of terrible people; we saw that this year as much as ever. So…what did we do exactly to deserve this amazing techno gem? I mean seriously, this song is incredible. It probably wasn’t until my fourth or fifth time through the song that I didn’t even realize that it doesn’t have any words. No words! Frankly, though, words would only detract from “Astral Plane,” which delivers on the title’s promise of a futuristic dance craze. Flying Lotus is 27-year-old Steven Ellison, a native of the San Fernando Valley and the great-nephew of Alice and John Coltrane. Music is in his blood, but his instrument of choice is his laptop and he does things with it that no one has ever thought to do before.

The entire Cosmogramma album is an outstanding piece of work with no equal this year, effortlessly flowing from style to style; contemplative to bouncy. Fortunately, “Astral Plane” revels in the latter. The beat is far too intricate to deconstruct here. There seem to be looped backing vocals underscoring some scatting in the beginning with a rudimentary four-to-the-floor beat soon coming in. You also can hear the hints of an ominous string part that later develops into a Psycho-sounding part that rises out of the mix over time. In fact the whole song is just continuous development. That original loop fades down as a fuzzy fusion synth plays a syncopated bass line, and the percussion adds more and more frantic elements to it. Soon the strings are the focus, then FlyLo reminds us of the initial loop we were introduced to. After an ominous laugh, the song explodes into its final, joyous chorus. Before he lets us go, though, FlyLo subjects us to an outro of subtle manipulation wherein we are treated to a full second of silence, among other things, without the beat ever breaking. This is a headbobber that challenges our ears and our minds without making things too difficult for our asses.

#8 – “Bang Pop” by Free Energy

Some dude with his homemade "free energy" device called, "The Sword of God." Now THAT is rock n' roll!

Philadelphia rockers Free Energy debuted onto the scene in 09 with some killer singles in “Free Energy” and “Dream City.” (See my countdown from last year for a summary of “Dream City.”) They laid the groundwork for the debut album, Stuck on Nothing, which, while not very consistent, contained the mind-blowing awesomeness of “Bang Pop,” which none of us could have ever foreseen. Armed with what can only be described as the best classic music video of the year (not counting Kanye West’s short film or Arcade Fire’s use of Google Street View), “Bang Pop” took the world by storm… Or at least it should have! I mean, listen to that bone-crunching drum part! The lead guitar riff is enough to make any classic rocker’s hairs stand on end. In fact, this song actually has aguitar solo in it! Right there after the second chorus! Right where it belongs. Who does that anymore?

Free Energy lead singer Scott Wells famously told how he had tried his whole life to be in bands that sounded “interesting” and jacked Pavement and Built to Spill. Yet, it wasn’t working and more importantly, he wasn’t having fun. What he realized, and by extension reminded all of us this year, is that rock n’ roll is about having fun. At its core, that’s how it started, and how it has maintained its popularity over the years, touching new generations of teens and young adults who just want to have the best fucking times of their lives. That’s “Bang Pop.” It’s sex, it’s drugs, it’s rock n’ roll, stripped down to its core. It’s not new, it’s not heady, but it is the pure distillation of the reason we started listening to this stuff in the first place. A world where Train hits the top of the charts and Free Energy doesn’t? It’s what we’ve got right now, but not if I can help it.


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