Top Songs of 2010: #7-4

I can see you all. Not literally, of course. Nor can I see you each individually. However, I know that you’re out there. Ever since starting this year-end countdown, my average hits per day have quadrupled. Even today, when I haven’t posted in several days, I’m still over twice my pre-list viewership. I am certainly grateful for all of the new eyes, but there’s one thing that bothers me. You wouldn’t be aware of this increase if you looked at the comments section. No one’s commenting about anything. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that I know you all have opinions about what I’m writing. In recent days, I’ve had people tell me in person that “Horchata” sucks, or that “England” is not the best song on High Violet. These are the kinds of things you should put in the comments section! I’d love to hear everyone’s reaction. And I’m sure your fellow readers would love to know what you’re thinking as well. So my challenge to everyone is to leave one comment on this post. It could be about the songs listed below, or it could be about songs already listed, or about predictions for the remaining songs. Or anything else. Just throw me a comment, let me know what your thoughts are, and let’s get a conversation going.

Also, in the introduction of my next post, the final one for this countdown, I will be making a big announcement. So stay tuned…

The Morning Benders, contrary to what their name might suggest, are actually about good clean fun.

#7 – “Excuses” by the Morning Benders

I’m still a big fan of Pitchfork. I think they can be egotistical, pretentious pricks a lot of the time, but I think they do a lot of good for underground music and often get a lot of things right. However, after finishing perusing their own year-end list of the best songs of 2010, the first thing I thought was, “No Morning Benders?!?” To me, the absence of this song is the biggest omission from their year-end summary. “Excuses” has been in my top 10 from the start of the year when I first heard it.

While most of the recent “retro” revival has focused on the cheesy synths of the 80s, the Morning Benders (best band name of the year?) go even further back in an homage to all things 50s and 60s. Built around a classic doo-wop chord progression (emphasized through the ba-da-dum backing vocals), “Excuses” features a piano plinking out eighth notes a la Fats Domino, weepy strings that could have come from a sappy Ben E. King number, and the general thunderousness of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. To set the mood, the first thing you hear in the song is a needle hitting a vinyl record! It’s perfect in the way it captures a vintage feel. Everything about the arrangement is impeccable: the variety of instruments, the way the song is stripped halfway through and builds back up even bigger than before, the vocals soaring in and around each other. Crazy props to Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor for the production and to Chris Chu for the beautiful songwriting.

Lyrically, though, the song travels places that few of those 60s pop ballads would go. Sixties pop was a music for young people. It could be viewed as ephemeral, since it dealt with the issues of young people at that particular time and place. Even a song like “Stand By Me” speaks about the future in unrealistic terms (“…’til the mountains crumble to the sea”). Chu does begin with the same butterfly-inducing moments of first love, albeit with an emphasis on the physical aspects of such a relationship (“You tried to taste me / And I taped my tongue to the southern tip of your body”). Quickly, though, he starts exploring the idea of a longer-lasting connection. The last verse of the song imagines the couple in their golden years, having weathered the ups and downs of an actual lasting relationship: “We are so smooth now / Our edges are beaten, driftwood whittled down / Old bodies slip when they make love…” It’s the stuff that we worry about as we get older – what does the future hold for us and our loved ones? It’s heady stuff, but it always comes back to that wordless, singalong chorus to keep things happy and light.

These are stills from Black's inventive music video for "Symphonies."

#6 – “Symphonies” by Dan Black

In my Media Theory and Literature class this past semester, one of the many topics we covered was postmodernism – a staple of many disciplines these days, and certainly an integral concept to the study of media. We were assigned a brief, four-page paper on anything that exemplified postmodernism, and of all the things in the world, I chose to write about this song and its accompanying music video. I don’t want to bore you with all of the theoretical mumbo-jumbo that I imbued in the paper, so suffice it to say that not only do I find this song incredibly well-written and produced, but I view it as a reflection of the world in which we live.

Black is a British musician who was in a variety of different bands before striking out on his own as a pop artist around 2008. He gained a lot of internet buzz from a song called “HYPNTZ” that he put out in 2009 which combined the drum beat from Rhihanna’s “Umbrella” with a musical sample from the 1984 John Carpenter film Starman and sang the lyrics from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” over the top of it in a whole new melody. However, because of obvious copyright problems with Biggie’s estate, he couldn’t release the track officially with those lyrics. Instead, “Symphonies” is the song that arose from it.

It’s a gorgeous track about redemption and hope. The lead lyrics are remarkably personal when you know the backstory: “I come disguise / I was hypnotized / Lost the track / Struggled back.” Throughout he grapples with his own insecurities and doubts about his worth as an artist: “I do get lonely / scared I’m phony;” “When I wanna quit / I suffocate it.” Yet the chorus strives for something better: “Gimme symphonies / Gimme more than the life I see / Score rise up, angels play / And my loneliness gets blown away.” It imagines the life we all want to lead – one of purpose, meaning and fulfillment that always seems possible but is never quite there. The music mirrors the grandiosity of the aspirations, lifting our spirits up with the swelling of the strings. It shows what can be done with musical recontextualization (that “Umbrella” beat is so sick!!) by not forgetting that the most effective music connects the personal with the universal.

#5 – “Monster” by Kanye West ft/ Bon Iver, Rick Ross, Jay-Z & Nicki Minaj

What more can be said about Kanye West? He is easily the hottest thing in music right now, and for once it’s deservedly so. I’ve always been a Kanye apologist – I liked 808’s & Heartbreaks, loved his use of Autotune as part of making an artistic statement. I teared up when he performed “Hey Mama” at the Grammys after his Mom died. I felt for him when Jay Leno made him cry on national TV after the Taylor Swift incident. And I downloaded every G.O.O.D. Friday track all fall, while following him on Twitter. All of this is important because Kanye is one of those larger-than-life personalities whose music cannot be divorced from the public persona that has arisen around him (sometimes intentionally and sometimes in spite of himself). When you listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (as every last one of you should), there’s no way not to think about the meltdowns, the dick pics, and all the other accompanying melodrama of the Kanye Saga. And yet, this doesn’t (shouldn’t?) detract from the music itself. If anything, it enhances our appreciation for this mad creative genius.

A screen capture from West's video for "Monster" finds him looking a lot like Tom Waits. If Tom Waits walked around carrying the decapitated head of a dead woman.

And I really do believe Kanye is a pop music genius. No one is doing what he is doing, and no one ever has. I though it was interesting in looking at the end-of-the-decade lists that were coming out last year to note that no one could seem to agree on which Kanye album was the best one. Every knew he was important, but was that importance embodied best in Late Registration or in The College Dropout? Well, the point is moot now with MBDTF. It takes all of the best of Kanye’s different phases and pushes the genres of hip-hop and pop music forward in massive ways. He treats each song as a composition using each element in service of the greater piece. It’s a remarkably whole album sonically and conceptually, while managing to have a massive roster of hits (“Power,” “Runaway,” “Lost in the World,” “All of the Lights” etc etc etc).

Yet, to me, “Monster” is the important missing link. The chain that binds the album to our standard notions of hip-hop. It is most basically a badass beat with some killer MCs spitting top-notch verses on top of it. This beat is sick! It’s all toms, rather than the traditional bass-snare that we’ve heard in mainstream hip-hop for the last two decades. The melodic aspects are spare but help create the dark atmosphere necessary for a track titled, “Monster.” The production is impeccable, with the beat dropping out or being embellished at just the right times, and the studio tricks (like the echos on Nicki Minaj’s “Pink wigs, thick ass, give em whip lash” couplets) are fancy, interesting and creative.

The content of the verses themselves is ridiculously high-level hip-hop, and largely because everybody stays on script. The “Monster” them runs consistently throughout. Kanye’s kiss-off, “I’m living in the future, so the presence is my past / My presence is a present, kiss my ass” sums up the whole album perfectly. Jay threatening his rising competition with “All I see is these fake fucks with no fangs / Trying-a draw blood from my ice cold veins” falls back on his normal boasts with new creative flair. And Nicki Minaj absolutely murders the ending as we just sit back and “watch the Queen conquer.” What makes it all better is the liveliness of the deliveries. Minaj seems to jump between different alter egos with the deftness of a veteran vocal actor. Even Jay drops his normally stoic demeanor to convey anger, frustration, confidence and desperation all through just the tone of his voice.

Then there’s the composition of the track. Kanye takes a lead from the free jazz of leading lights like Ornette Coleman in allowing/limiting his guest rappers and singers to verses of varying lengths. Typically, each rapper might get an equal 32 bars or so over which to rap before heading back to the chorus. Here, each rapper gets to stretch out as much as they need to in order to convey what they need to. Jay-Z gets 40. Kanye gets 56. Nicki stretches out for an amazing 62 bars. And poor Rick Ross gets just the 8-bar intro. Kanye also opts out of having a chorus after Nicki’s verse, instead laying down an eerie, heavily modulated outro from Bon Iver as the final piece that we hear. Everything Kanye does here is clearly in service of the song itself. It’s hip-hop for the future, performed by several of the best in the game right now and conducted by the man who’s already left the rest of us in the present.

#4 – “Good Intentions Paving Company” by Joanna Newsom

What Kanye did for hip-hop this year, Joanna Newsom did for rock n’ roll, albeit in a much lower-profile setting. On her triple-disc Have One on Me, Newsom expanded the possibilities of what we consider to be popular music, as she has done on her previous two releases as well. Yet her album is also a culmination of sorts. She keeps the beautiful arrangements of Ys and the more focused songwriting of The Milk-Eyed Mender to produce an epic of accessible inaccessible pop music (if that makes sense…). I still have to fully digest the whole thing (I have a feeling it will take years to fully do so), but “Easy,” “’81,” “Baby Birch,” “In California,” “Jackrabbits,” and “Kingfisher” are all standouts. Newsom throughout flashes her gift for lyrics, melodies, vocal phrasing, patient arrangements and general great songwriting. All of that is in evidence on her most accessible song from the album, “Good Intentions Paving Company.”

Wow! Joanna Newsom making the harp sexy again! That's right. I said, Again.

Newsom has never been known for straightforward lyrics, and this one is no different. It’s unclear whether this a tale of disconnect with a lover (“I only want for you to pull over and hold me til I can’t remember my own name”), or perhaps a political commentary on the state of the United States (“waving the flag / feeling it drag”). It’s probably intended to be both, and many more. It’s a song that takes place on the road, and the bouncing piano certainly gives the impression of constant and steady movement for much of the song. Yet the song is peppered with amazing imagery and clever wordplay: “Like I’m in a fistfight with a fog”; “And I regret how I said to you, ‘Honey just open your heart’ / When I have trouble even opening a honey jar”; “I fell for you, honey, just as easy as falling asleep.” I particularly enjoy how she strings together two classic song titles in the phrase, “Auld Lang Syne Sealed Delivered.” At times, it feels like the ramblings of a lost artist – poetic, insightful and all over the map. And, thanks to the title, you know that throughout all of it, the road she’s on is likely the one to hell (since it is paved with good intentions).

Newsom’s vocal delivery is always shifting these lyrics around. Though the song has a basic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-outro structure, you’d almost never know it. Aside from there being no lyrical hook to come back to, Newsom is constantly phrasing her syllables in different places, holding notes for different lengths, offering a new and different direction for her vocal melody. I firmly believe that she is one of the great singers of the folk/indie rock genre not for her voice (which many criticize), but for her ability to tease the most out of a melody. The arrangement also builds constantly, introducing organs, trumpets, mandolins and banjos, with a syncopated, off-kilter drum part. It’s a 7-minute song that feels fresh right up through the minute and a half instrumental outro, and that is a testament to Newsom’s vast gifts. If you’ve been turned off by her voice in the past, give this a shot because she is doing things that no one else is, and probably never will.


3 responses to this post.

  1. I also totally forgot about Dan Black, Symphonies is pretty great although I don’t think I would have put it this high for the song alone, the video really does it for me.

    Nicki Minaj totally owns on Monster. I didn’t know much about her before listening to the song, but she totally blew me away. Also, thank you for not linking to the actual video for Monster because it’s super gross and I hate it.

    Joanna Newsom…
    I have to say that I’m a regular passenger on the Joanna Newsom hate train. You’re right, her voice is definitely better now, but I think I’ve disliked her for so long that I can’t get over the mental block. I just don’t have the patience for her music.


  2. Posted by Ian on January 19, 2011 at 4:56 am

    Hi Carter et al.
    I’m following along, but waiting for you to finish before I comment.


  3. Posted by Ian on January 19, 2011 at 4:58 am

    Also, I agree that Monster is the best track on MBDTF. Jay-Z really impressed me with the raw quality of his rap.


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