I am not a music snob. I feel it's important to declare this upfront, as the forthcoming list has the potential to brand me as a hipster indie fan who loathes mainstream pop artists because their music is too inclusive and caters to the low-brow cravings of the slovenly masses. And that honestly isn't the case. My problem with modern music isn't one of elitism but awareness. Following the Manifesto's prior music post, my friend Chuck pointed out that my taste "rarely weaves outside of indie pop/rock," and that's typically true, but it isn't because I don't like mainstream music – it's because I've usually just never heard it.
See, with movies, I watch so many that I'm generally able to maintain a comprehensive overview of the current state of cinema. Sure, I'm a bit lacking on the foreign film market, and there will always be a handful of obscure low-profile releases that evade my eye, but watching over 100 new releases per year grants me a reasonably informed perspective of the world of film. But with music, the market is so heavily saturated – literally dozens of new albums are released for public consumption every week – that I just don't have the ability to keep up. (Life as a law student doesn't help.) Furthermore, the two music websites I peruse regularly – the supremely arrogant Pitchfork Media and the only-marginally more welcoming Onion A.V. Club – tend to employ tunnel vision in championing burgeoning, underground artists at the expense of the Top 40. And while I frequently receive recommendations from my friends Brian and Maloney – both of whom are far more knowledgeable about music than I – their tastes, while not entirely insular, nevertheless tend to be indie-focused.
So if you read this list and immediately react, "I've never heard of any of these fucking bands, this guy must be an asshole," just bear in mind that I hold no ill will toward successful musicians. I probably just don't know who they are.
That said, one advantage of the massive breadth (if not wealth) of the contemporary music industry is that good new sounds are arising from everywhere, and regardless of your familiarity with the following artists, let me assure you that I'm highlighting some very good music. Sure, music more so than most art forms carries with it a degree of subjectivity – you won't find any tribute to Kanye West on this site, for example – but I'm confident that most readers will enjoy at least a handful of the following songs, most likely a large majority.
As for the list itself, you'll notice that this post is highlighting 2010's best songs rather than albums. This is a bit of an ideological reversal for me, as I try to be very album-focused when I listen to music. For whatever reason, however, very few albums impressed me in their totality over the past year; rather, I found myself routinely returning to particular songs, then skipping forward to other favorite tracks, as opposed to absorbing albums in their entirety. For better or worse, 2010, it appears, was the Year of the Single.
But what a collection of singles. Going forward, I'm unlikely to listen to very many albums from 2010, but I'll revisit the following songs again and again. One note: In an effort to diversify, I'm limiting myself to a max of one song per artist (meaning I can't put three Yeasayer tracks in my top five, but no matter). And with that, I present the Manifesto's Best Songs of 2010:
(Quick note on the videos: For songs that feature an accompanying music video designed specifically for that song, I'm embedding it. For those that don't, I'm just linking to a YouTube upload of the song that includes the audio, so even if an actual video doesn't exist, a listen is just a click away. As for the videos themselves, I am recommending the songs, not the videos. In general, some music videos enhance the power and meaning of a song through restraint, well-chosen thematic imagery, and overall directorial savvy. Most don't. Take that for what it's worth.)
25. Delorean – Stay Close. Two minutes into this track – a frothy slice of upbeat electronica – the backing vocals suddenly hiss "Get up, get-up, get-up-get-up get up!" They needn't have bothered, as you'll already be on your feet by then. Rarely has summery electro-pop been more breezily enjoyable.
24. Titus Andronicus – Theme from "Cheers". Titus Andronicus' first album, The Airing of Grievances, was a frenzied assault on even the roughest roughneck's auditory sensibilities, a heavy-metal barrage that was as incomprehensible as it was loud. Their follow-up, the high-concept effort The Monitor, represents significant growth, though it still didn't quite click for me as a cohesive narrative. This track, however, showcases their talents for combining quippy storytelling with earnest, smashing hard-rock. And with lyrics such as "Let's get fucked up, and let's pretend we're all O.K." and "I need a whiskey right now!", it makes me want to get really, really drunk. So there's that.
23. Midlake – Rulers, Ruling All Things. Midlake's quiet, ramshackle sound can stray from subtly insistent to simply somnambulant. Few bands can adequately imitate the backwoods charm and urgency of Bon Iver, and on their latest album, Midlake frequently step awry. But on this track, they marry their inherently low-key strumming with surprising verve. They rarely raise their voices, but the low-register bass line builds gradually, and the chorus ("I only want to be left to my own ways") possesses an unmistakable resolve.
22. The Depreciation Guild – Dream About Me. The best and worst thing about great shoegaze is that the words don't really matter. That's disturbing in that I can find myself "singing" along to a song without knowing any of the lyrics, which in theory is impossible and disparages any effort the band put into crafting the lyrics. But certain music is more about soundscapes than words, and the rich, shimmering haziness of the Depreciation Guild forms its own language of poetry. It also makes the imperative of the title – which, taken objectively, is a bit creepy – a soft-spoken, entirely reasonable request.
21. The New Pornographers – Crash Years. "Traffic was slow for the crash years! There's no other show like it 'round here!" When Neko Case puts her voice into something, she's wielding a weapon of enormous power. That voice is biblical – if she ever switched from singing to sermonizing, she could incite a new Crusade.
(Love the video, by the way. While most music videos are hyperactive to the point of disorientation, this one features a formal discipline on par with the Coen Brothers. In fact, it recalls the Brothers' famous parking lot scene from Fargo, only married to the brisk whimsy of Mary Poppins.)
20. Broken Bells – The Ghost Inside. Broken Bells is a collaboration between James Mercer (of The Shins) and Brian Burton, whose stage name is Danger Mouse and who is apparently one of the most talented producers in the business. "The Ghost Inside," which combines a flamboyant falsetto with a magnificent bass funk, doesn't sound much like a Shins song (though Mercer delivers a reliably appealing bridge), but it's just as unpredictably weird as that band's best music.
(Two great videos in a row. This one stars "Mad Men"'s Christina Hendricks and is as fascinating as it is nonsensical. Did I mention it stars Christina Hendricks?)
19. Bat for Lashes/Beck – Let's Get Lost. This collaboration was made for the third Twilight movie, and whatever derision you may direct toward that franchise, you can't deny that it's attracted some mighty impressive musicians. "Let's Get Lost" utilizes Natasha Khan's breathtaking vocal delivery to its full, ethereal effect, resulting in a mythic romanticism that the film earnestly strives for but can't quite match (though it's damn enjoyable, but that's another story). "Just for tonight, darling, let's get lost" she pleads over and over again – like you'd say no?
18. Surfer Blood – Floating Vibes. This was a tough decision, as I could just as easily have selected "Swim" or "Take It Easy" from Surfer Blood's delightful debut album Astro Coast and come away happy. But "Floating Vibes", the opening track on Astro Coast, is a perfect slice of pop music. The production is tightly wound, the songwriting is punchy ("If you're moving out to the West/Then you'd better learn how to surf"), the percussion never stops pushing forward, and the electric guitars just plain rock. Expect big things from these guys.
17. Jimmy Eat World – Cut. Hey, a mainstream band! Of course, I have no idea if Jimmy Eat World are still popular, but they should be, especially after releasing such a finely tuned album as Invented. The composition of "Cut", however, is a far cry from the band that briefly took over pop radio nine years ago with "The Middle". It's a grand, vaguely operatic apology piece that slowly builds to a soaring chorus of warning ("If it's your name in lights, and if the time is yours/You'd be on your back/You'd be on the floor"). Done wrong, such a piece could come off as untethered and self-indulgent; done right, it's majestic.
16. Metric – Black Sheep. In releasing their stellar 2009 album Fantasies, Metric – for reasons I will never be able to adequately discern – elected not to include this slammin' piece of pop-rock. That worked out just fine for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director Edgar Wright, who snatched up the track and assigned it to his film's fictional megastar rockers, The Clash at Demonhead. And while Metric may not yet possess the global fame of that comic-book quartet, this song should send them well on their way. A titillating tour de force of sonic explosiveness, "Black Sheep" is exactly the kind of song that a wildly popular band would play at a concert crawling with rabid, ravenous fans. It is also a supremely well-constructed song, with thrashing guitars yielding only to Emily Haines' (or Brie Larson's, in the film) fiery vocals. Rock on, Clash at Demonhead.
15. Frightened Rabbit – Nothing Like You. This was another tough call, as The Winter of Mixed Drinks features 4-5 single-worthy tracks. But "Nothing Like You" takes the spot thanks to its marvelously vindictive description of a rebound relationship. "There is nothing like someone new/This girl she was nothing like you," Scott Hutchison seethes while the guitars swirl around him. But there's some sadness amidst the clamor as well, and as Hutchison admits that "she was not the cure for cancer", we have to wonder just how much catharsis he's really achieved.
(The predictably frenetic video plays nicely on that sentiment, as after the music stops, the band slowly looks around as if to wonder if their rage and bitterness have meant anything.)
14. Shearwater – Castaways. If Neko Case's voice can compel men to go to war, Jonathan Meiburg's can make them stop in their tracks and weep. Ceaselessly flirting with falsetto, Meiburg's relentless octave-shifting lends his songs a hushed, spellbinding grandiosity, as if he's forecasting the end of the world in the most gorgeous way possible. Shearwater's sound is often contemplative, and "Castaways" is by no means bombastic, but neither is it soft-pedaled, and a relentless snare line emphasizes the breathless urgency of Shearwater's music.
13. The Gaslight Anthem – Old Haunts. For a band that traffics so heavily in nostalgia, "Old Haunts" is a wry piece of self-criticism, with its admonishing refrain, "Don't sing me your songs about the good times/Those days are gone and you should just let 'em go". Whether or not the Springsteen worshippers stake out any new territory compared to their storied predecessors is a question for a more learned musical historian; as far as I'm concerned, their sound captures the essence of enjoyable rock music. Perfectly balanced guitars, rock-solid hooks, an energetic bridge, pumping percussion – there may not be that much new to see here, but what we have is plenty.
12. Diamond Rings – Wait & See. The beat for this song is unhealthily compelling. Whenever I listen to it while driving, I start bobbing my head like I'm in a slow-motion version of A Night at the Roxbury. Throw in the extraordinary timbre of John O'Regan's voice – the guy sounds like Johnny Cash filtered through David Bowie – and the result is one of the most insidious can't-stop-singing-this-to-yourself-in-the-shower songs of the year.
(Also, this video is incontrovertible proof that you should never watch a music video before listening to the song first. O'Regan looks like a reject from the Marilyn Manson Fan Club. If someone had sent me this video absent any context, I would have shrieked and closed it immediately, terrified that I'd just been spammed by a gay porn site. The scary part? Once you accept the outrageousness of it, the video is kind of cool.)
11. Against Me! – Because of the Shame. Is there a sadder opening line to a song than "We used to get high together instead of getting high alone"? The sound of Against Me! is pure punk-rock (with a deceptive measure of craftsmanship), but the fury of their noise can disguise some truly depressing narratives. The intriguing dichotomy of White Crosses, their latest album, is that their id-powered rage-rock receives the benefit of a polished, near-meticulous production. That might suggest a contradiction, but it dramatically enhances the communication of their message, and Tom Gabel's lyrics are refreshingly prioritized ahead of the clanging guitars and percussion. That's particularly important on "Because of the Shame", which tells the sorrowful story of a girl searching for a fresh start, only to wind up dead anyway. "I watched your mother bury you today with tears in her eyes/Oh it wasn't her words that shook me but the resemblance you shared," he laments. Gabel isn't the only one being shaken here.
10. Arcade Fire – City with No Children. I wasn't plugged in to the music industry in 2004, so when the zeitgeist hit along with Arcade Fire's Funeral, I missed it. I wonder if that's prevented me from fully engaging with their music, as their soothing alt-rock has always kept me at a bit of a distance, but I liked a great deal of The Suburbs, no track more so than this one. Backed by a single bass that never, ever stops, Win Butler delivers a narrative about ... well, I'm not exactly sure, but he somehow sounds both alarmed and strangely contented. Sure, the concept of a city – much less a suburban one – lacking in children is thoroughly terrifying, but Butler's vocals carry with them a quiet sense of confident, against-all-odds optimism. He's swaddling the apocalypse in silk.
9. Vampire Weekend – Giving Up the Gun. Unlike Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend's arrival on the indie music scene in early 2008 was virtually synchronized with my own dawning realization that pop music existed in a realm outside animated Disney films. Still, I never entirely embraced their self-titled first album, which, while pleasant and well-crafted, felt a bit samey to me (though whenever you title a song "Oxford Comma", you've earned my attention). I'm a bigger fan of their sophomore effort, Contra, which explores a wider variety of sonic tropes and concludes with the startlingly introspective "I Think Ur a Contra". Yet the crowning achievement of that album is clearly "Giving Up the Gun", an upbeat slice of groove-rock that would have felt comfortably at home on their first album but is nevertheless indicative of the band's growth. The guitars perfectly complement Ezra Koenig's vocals, and the chorus is predictably catchy, but there's a moment at the four-minute mark when Koenig's voice suddenly drops out and the pace slows as the backup singers simply repeat the refrain ("I see you shine in your way/Go on, go on, go on"), and then a rapid-fire snare brings us back up to speed. It's a lovely little detail from a tremendously talented band whose best is still yet to come.
(Hard to decide the best thing about this video. For one thing, it features a hot redhead playing tennis (sort of). For another, Jake Gyllenhaal randomly shows up. And yet I think my favorite detail is that the redhead is left-handed. Good-looking southpaws are hard to find.)
8. ceo – Illuminata. There's a classic scene from In & Out (which is a terrible movie, but no matter) in which Kevin Kline, who's gay, listens to a self-help tape that informs him that "truly manly men do not dance". He then spends the next minute trying against his will to resist the beat of Aretha Franklin's "I Will Survive" before ultimately yielding to his base desires and going berserk. I bring this up because I dare you to listen to this song – with its rapid-fire electronic beat and scat-based backing vocals – and not dance. You will fail.
7. Taylor Swift – Back to December. In a sense, Kanye West's idiotic sabotage of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at last year's MTV Music Awards served her interests, because it likely engendered some measure of sympathy for her, thus postponing the pop-culture backlash that inevitably accompanies any popular musician's ascension to global fame, much less one who caters to earnest young girls. That backlash is still coming (if it hasn't already arrived), and that's a shame because Taylor Swift is really fucking talented. The best thing about her latest album, the excellent Speak Now, is that in spite of its flawless production, it carries no acknowledgment of Swift's current status as an icon. Rather, it's an astonishingly earnest set of songs by a truly earnest artist who doesn't seem remotely aware that she now basically rules the world. No track typifies this more beautifully than "Back to December" (though "Dear John" comes pretty damn close), a yearning, heart-on-her-sleeve apology to an ex-boyfriend she once dumped. Brutally frank lyrics like "Turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you/Wishing I'd realized what I had when you were mine" could turn to mush in the wrong artist's hands, but Swift's sentimentality – not to mention her dead-center vocal delivery – is so heartfelt that we can't question the authenticity of her emotions. She may be one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but she's still just a scared little girl. And that's what makes her music so good.
(Also, never in my life have I fantasized that an ex-girlfriend would stand outside my apartment blaring this song from a boom box. Just wanted to clear that up.)
6. The Hold Steady – The Weekenders. No 2010 album disappointed me more than the Hold Steady's Heaven Is Whenever – not because it was bad, mind you, but because it didn't reach the potentially unreachable standards I've set for one of my favorite bands. But while the album as a whole is disappointing, "The Weekenders" represents the Hold Steady at the peak of their form, a hard-charging ballad of lost love and bitterness. Finn still displays his gift for casually dispensing witticisms ("She said 'The theme of this party's the industrial age'/And you came in dressed like a train wreck"), but he continues to mature as a singer, expanding the range of his voice while retaining the intimacy of his half-spoken style. But it's the band's gift for transforming the rough-and-tumble sound of bar-punk into a venue of unsuspecting majesty that remains its greatest strength. Late in the song, Finn prophesies, "If you swear to keep it decent, then yeah I'll come and see you/But it's not gonna be like in romantic comedies/In the end I bet no one learns a lesson," before Tad Kubler's guitar solo ascends into the stratosphere. They can still make music magical, even if they're dressed like a train wreck.
5. Hot Chip – I Feel Better. I'm not much of a dancer (and by "not much" I mean "so totally not at all"), so it might seem strange that I enjoy Hot Chip's dance-pop so immensely. But in a sense, they're really an emo group disguised as an electronica outfit, and Alexis Taylor's swooning falsetto is magnetically arresting. On one level, "I Feel Better" is pure, groove-happy dance music, with a pulse-pounding beat and wave upon wave of restless synthesizers. On another, it's a sad, desperate love song. "I only want one life together in our arms," Taylor pleads over and over as the beat slams relentlessly behind him, and it's hard to know whether we should dance, cry, or both.
(Quite the bait-and-switch from the video. You'll see what I mean.)
4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Say No to Love. There is some music with which I feel an inexplicable connection, an intimacy, a sense that it was written solely for me. And then there's a song like this, which is basically saying, in the most dulcet tones possible, "You will never be happy, so you might as well stop trying". That it is exquisitely produced, sonically upbeat, and just generally frighteningly beautiful does little to detract from the cruelty of its message. It's a gilded knife, and it's headed straight for your heart.
3. Belle and Sebastian – I Didn't See It Coming. I know, I'm just being predictable; I love Belle and Sebastian, so obviously they're going to show up high on my list, right? But wait a minute: Are we even sure this is a Belle and Sebastian song? Their frontman, Stuart Murdoch, plays second fiddle to Sarah Martin, and more importantly, the song isn't remotely clever. Murdoch is a poet slumming as a musician, so where are the coy quips, the witty asides? Instead we just have one simple imperative: "Make me dance, I want to surrender." And from that command blooms a rich, tender duet that is gorgeous in its magnificent simplicity. Buoyed by subtle harmonies, "I Didn't See It Coming" builds and builds until Murdoch finally takes center stage, crowing to the crowd, "Read about us in the morning papers when we make it/When we make it alive!" The result is a superlative piece of music that will make even the most hard-hearted listener surrender.
2. Yeasayer – Madder Red. This Brooklyn quartet delivered three pantheon songs on their latest album, and I could just as easily have gone with "Ambling Alp" or "O.N.E." But the majesty of "Madder Red" is impossible to deny, with its cooing backup singers doing battle with its ruthless rhythm section, while Chris Keating's full-bodied vocals glide from baritone to falsetto and back. "Never gave a thought to an honorable living/Always had sense enough to lie," Keating confesses in the bridge, but that's false cynicism, and it masks the inherent beauty of Yeasayer's music. It's a soaring brand of glistening glam-rock that fearlessly rejects musical norms, but "Madder Red", daring as it may be, is by no means the product of random experimentation. This is craftsmanship at its finest.
(Warning: This video, featuring Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Kristen Bell, will absolutely make you cry. I'm not kidding.)
1. The National – Conversation 16. "I think the kids are in trouble/I do not know what all the troubles are for." And so we enter the life of Matt Berninger, a lost soul trying helplessly to cope with middle age and wondering how the hell he's gone so wrong. That's a lie, of course, at least as it pertains to his music; The National are becoming ever more successful, which makes sense given that with every successive album they somehow improve upon their last. But a haunting sadness pervades their latest release (the transcendent High Violet), and on "Conversation 16" they hit rock-bottom. "You'd never believe the shitty thoughts I think," Berninger mumbles in his inimitable bottomless rumble. He then illustrates just how shitty those thoughts are, whether he's referring to tedious dinner-dates ("I'll try to hold it together till our friends are gone"), his subsistence "on coffee and flowers", or his contemplation of suicide ("I have my head in the oven so you know where I'll be"). Meanwhile, the band's production is quietly terrific, with the drums constantly pushing Berninger forward when all he really wants to do is turn back and search for an escape. "We'll leave the silver city 'cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams," he resolves, but he's just fooling himself. As "Conversation 16" reaches its dire, spellbinding conclusion – the rat-a-tat snare sending him toward a cliff while his band mates sigh like broken angels – Berninger finally gives up and yields to his own demons: "I am evil." Could have fooled me – the music is sublime.