A better year for songs than for albums (see my top albums of 2010 list), as is increasingly the case. At this point in music history, you’d think it not possible to do anything new. But there are still plenty of artists out there either creating something new by combining different impulses, or focusing on crafting good, melodic, hook-laden pop/folk/rock.
Interestingly, in a year that was somewhat unsettling and worrisome for many people, a lot of songs were suffused with a sense of joy and wonder. Either that or I was particularly attracted to those types of songs this year! Also a great year for vintage keyboards!
“Burden of Tomorrow” by The Tallest Man on Earth – This may be my favorite song of the year – and proof that you don’t need anything fancy to create a good song. This is nothing but Kristian Matsson’s acoustic guitar and voice, but melodic, joyful singing, energetic playing, and beautiful lyrics raise this to the sublime.
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by The Arcade Fire – This is the highlight of Arcade Fire’s opus The Suburbs. The mechanical feel of the keyboards and drum machine are offset by Regine Chasselet’s breathy soaring vocals, the perfect combination for this song of yearning to find one’s place in a crowded world of sameness. “I need the darkness, someone please shut the lights.”
“Rill Rill” by Sleigh Bells – A great combination of sounds and influences (for some reason I particularly love the pounding bass drum that appears every few bars) make this one of my favorite “shake my head to in the car” songs.
“F**k You” by Cee Lo Green – I’m not a huge R&B fan (at least modern R&B) as I just don’t hear much different in this genre. This song doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s just so fun, so joyful and so melodic that I can’t resist it. And we’ve all felt this way at one time or another!
“I Can Change” by LCD Soundsystem – The keyboards sound like Gary Numan (think “Cars”) and James Murphy uses his rather limited voice to good effect, particularly on the descending chorus.
“Apply” by Glasser – I love it when people mix different influences to produce something new. With ethereal swooping vocals, Afro-Brazilian percussion, and dramatic keyboards, this song is moving and dramatic.
“Floating Vibes” by Surfer Blood – A chunky guitar riff that echoes the verse, complemented by a ringing arpeggiated guitar.
“Written in Reverse” by Spoon – I haven’t heard a song kicked this hard by piano since the heyday of Ben Folds Five.
“Norway” by Beach House – A breathy wordless chorus opens this song and then leads into a dreamy verse with keyboard swelling in and out of key.
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National – “Haunting” barely begins to describe this song, with offbeat snare drum, droning piano and Matt Berninger’s unique baritone voice creating a strong sense of drama and danger.
“This Too Shall Pass” by Ok Go – A “wall of sound” approach here with a huge vocal choruses, sax wailing, piano pounding, and a very active approach to drums. And check out the video!
“Crash Years” by The New Pornographers – A cello riff pulses underneath Neko Case singing the always entertainingly odd Carl Newman lyrics. Whistles and the usual harmonies add the finishing touches.
“The Ghost Inside” by Broken Bells – Starts out with a hip-hop guitar signature and falsetto vocals before the ‘80s synths kick in with the lower register chorus.
“Little Lion Man” by Mumford & Sons – A simple folk song with a passionate vocal and nice harmonies.
“Radioactive” by Kings of Leon – Urgent guitars launch this song, and the urgency is repeated in the chorus, making this undoubtedly an arena rock favorite.
“You Hands (Together)” by The New Pornographers – This song reminds me of Twin Cinema (the highlight, IMHO, of the New Pornographers catalog to date): a number of different impulses somehow mashed together into a tuneful and fun whole.
"World Sick" by Broken Social Scene – A great return from the Canadian collective after a five year absence (at least from the full band) with a typically murky "where is this going?" opening leading into a multi-voiced verse and a tearing chorus.
“I Get Nervous” by Lower Dens – Reminds me of “Ketterling” from The Antlers’ Hospice album. A moody aching drone.
“Animal Arithmetic” by Jónsi – A song that just drips with life and celebration. A rapidly thumped bass drum propels Jónsi’s chanting vocals, leading into the falsetto chorus as he exhorts “We should all be oh oh oh alive!”
“Heart Is Strange” by School of Seven Bells – Songs like this must keep retro-synthesizer sellers in business! Interesting harmonies and chiming guitar make this song much more than a simple 1980s flashback.
“Helicopter” by Deerhunter – Songs I really like tend to move me in oft indefinable ways. This happens as soon as the effect-laden guitar swells 30 seconds into this song, taking it from a delicate chant to a moving vision.
“Snakebites” by The Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt – Like someone let There Might Be Giants loose in a dance studio.
“Angel Dance” by Robert Plant – A remake of a Los Lobos song by the former Led Zep frontman. Mandolin and a grinding guitar figure drive this song along and give a fresh feeling to older music. Plant’s obvious respect for the material lift this above the typical older rock star remake.
“Meet Me in the Basement” by Broken Social Scene – The only instrumental on this list. What can I say other than this song kicks ass.
“Pyro” by Kings of Leon – A rolling guitar figure and aching voice carries this minor key song.
“Round and Round” by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – A cool opening with repeated keyboard bass and deep voices chanting underneath a falsetto, all leading to a nice poppy chorus.
“Odessa” by Caribou – One of the more electronic tunes I found myself listening to this year. A simple bass figure and repetitive vocal phrase keep this song moving while keyboard and electronic noises add flourishes along the way.
“Captive” by Sarah Harmer – A blueprint for the perfectly crafted, short and sweet folk-rock song, with a hooky chorus, simple arrangement and Harmer’s trademark quirky observational lyrics.
“Ready to Go” by The Arcade Fire – Leading out of the opening country-tinged “The Suburbs,” this song launches Arcade Fire’s third album into the stratosphere as Wim sings “Businessmen they drink my blood.”
“Empty Room” by The Arcade Fire – Breathy harmonized vocals, driving rhythm, and a slide guitar signature bending and swooping above the retro-synthgs. A classic powerful Arcade Fire tune.
“Blue Moon” by Kendal Johansson – An odd little song that’s somehow better than the sum of its parts. A crashing distorted drum leads to birds chirping in the background, and then a piano signature leads into a passionate vocal.
“Tighten Up” by The Black Keys – I couldn’t resist this song with its white funk crunch, distorted vocals, and the loud synths grinding away after each verse.
“Swim Until You Can’t See Land” by Frightened Rabbit – Another example (like “Burden of Tomorrow” and “Captive”) of a well-crafted beautiful pop song where “less is more.” A simple acoustic guitar riff and Scottish-inflected voice builds to a great sing-a-long chorus.
“Solitude Is Bliss” by Tame Impala – A heavily treated guitar lightly starts this piece, leading to a simple funky verse/chorus structure.
“Crazy for You” by Best Coast – 1:50 of chiming pop heaven
“Dead Heart” by Stars – A classic Stars vocal mix with Torquil Campbell asking questions in his almost delicate voice and Amy Millan responding in her soft precise way. Their voices stay just this side of preciousness, and with the orchestral keyboards build to a swirling climax.
“Lantern” by Josh Ritter – A great Josh Ritter song with singable chorus and great lyrics.