Saturday, December 25, 2010

100 Songs for 2010: 1-5


We're counting down our 100 favorite songs of the year.  Today, THE TOP FIVE!!! Thanks so much to everyone who put up with our incessant Facebook hyping. Hopefully there were a few songs in here you liked. If you haven't already done so, feel free to download the entire collection by clicking on the picture abouve. And now, the top five ... or, more accurately, first a long essay, THEN the top five. Eventually.

Check out previous posts here.


I’m done with being right. I really am. If I learned one thing in 2010, it was this.

It was a year of sending angry, 2,000 word emails defending Twins pitcher Scott Baker … to a friend of mine who is also a die-hard Twins fan. It was a year of following a hundred snarky Twitter feeds … occasionally chuckling along, but mostly feeling like I was wasting my life on needless sarcasm. It was a year spent reading negative reviews of albums I enjoyed on first listen … and often finding myself agreeing with the reviewer, because online takedowns are exceedingly persuasive. I don’t know if my generation can compete on a global scale, but we definitely rule the world when it comes to vitriolic internet screeds. If Twitter has taught us nothing else, it’s that 140 characters can be combined into an infinite number of ways to say, “This sucks!” It was a full-time job, staying current on why everything was terrible. I became confused with the process of being right. And so I tried to give it up completely.

That’s a gross overstatement, of course. It’s still incredibly important to be right the vast majority of the time. A seemingly impossible number of everyday decisions still have real-world consequences. Choosing a job, or a school, or friends, or investments … for the majority of anyone’s day, the pressure to be right is enormous and very real. That’s kind of the point. So why we decided that it’s also important to be right about pop culture … about things like songs, or bands, or teams, or television shows … it blows my mind. This should be our haven from the necessity of being right. And maybe for some of you it always has been. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. But I think I bought into this need to be right. I became conditioned by people on the internet telling me that my favorite TV shows were terrible, that my favorite players were worthless, and that my favorite songs were nothing less than a frontal assault on anyone with ears. And so I resolved to be right. This year, my New Year’s resolution is a little different: I want to move past the desire to be right where being right has no actual value.

So what happened? How did I get to the point where I felt it necessary to write a thousand-word essay basically explaining why I am finally free to … um … actually like the things I like? As with basically all of the world’s problems, I blame the internet. Between our appointed arbiters of taste, our aggregations of the views of the masses, and our statistical proofs of quality, it became possible to make objective arguments for previously subjective determinations. That album got a 5.4 on Pitchfork. That restaurant only has three stars on Yelp. That pitcher’s VORP is below replacement level. And the natural inclination is to conform to those decrees. “I thought that album was pretty good, but it turns out it’s just mediocre. I wonder where I went wrong.”

And so the safest possible position to take, when it comes to matters of taste, is just to proclaim that everything is terrible. This is often close enough to the truth. Everything is flawed. Of course it is. So you point out those flaws. And you sound smart. And you sound funny. And jaded. And cool. And effortlessly detached. And, almost always, you will be right.

I never saw Toy Story 3, but it was definitely one of the most universally loved movies of 2010. It scored a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. Do you know what that means? It means if you want to read three negative reviews of the movie, you absolutely can. And I bet all three of them are well-written, and probably make a few good points. I bet no matter how much you loved Toy Story 3, you will come away from those reviews loving it a little bit less, kicking yourself for not ferreting out those flaws. This is just human nature.

And this is what I would like to stop doing. I’m not saying the secret to happiness is blind, unconditional love for everything, regardless of quality. I’m not saying we need to embrace the crap, give up looking at art critically … nothing like that. All I’m saying is that, if your first instinct is to like something … then like it. Don’t start picking at it. Don’t seek out a second opinion, because you will find it. Someone on the internet hates everything you love. And that’s okay. Don’t start looking for the flaws. Because you will find them. And then what? How will that make you any happier?

I think a lot of people spend a lot of time and energy in an attempt to protect themselves from accidentally liking something that turns out to be bad. Which is interesting, because there are absolutely no real-world implications for such a mistake. Watch:

There is a Hanson song on this list. In all honesty, it should probably be ranked even higher.

It’s been almost a minute since I typed that sentence, and nothing horrible has happened to me. There’s no downside. Maybe a couple of you rolled your eyes. Maybe I’ll put this up on the blog and get some negative comments. That’s it. Everyone is still alive. And the upside is that I got to listen to this awesome Hanson song probably fifty times this year, and it made me happy every time. That seems like the better end of the bargain.

So, before we start, I’d like to concede every criticism of every one of these songs. They change nothing. Let’s get a few of them out of the way right now:

Gaslight Anthem sounds like an overproduced version of the kids from Glee covering Bruce Springsteen. The Hold Steady aren’t nearly as dynamic or interesting as they were five years ago. Neither are Drive By Truckers. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have been writing basically the same song over and over again for their entire career. So have the Thermals. All this critical acclaim for Robyn is just music nerds trying to justify how much they loved “Show Me Love” in 1997. Freelance Whales only exist because yuppies in New York City can’t get over how adorable they look. I liked Foxy Shazam better when they were called The Darkness. Sleigh Bells sold out when they signed with M.I.A.’s label. You only like Sambassadeur because they’re from Sweden. Actually … that could apply to a lot of these bands. Every band on Sincerely Yours sounds exactly the same. Tinashe is just ripping off the Kooks. Black Keys are just ripping off The White Stripes. Arcade Fire just want to be all epic now, they’re a bloated indie U2. Only rich kids and frat boys listen to Vampire Weekend anymore …

Fine. Fine. Yes. All of that sounds about right.

And yet, here are 100 songs that consistently made me happy for the last year. So when I die, and I stand before the Ultimate Arbiter of Taste, and he reads from his scroll the final verdict on my song choices for 2010 … well, that will never happen. No consequences. Ever. I promise.

Most of you will probably disagree with some of the songs on this list. I hope you do. However, when you do inevitably disagree, I only hope that it’s because you thought there were other, more deserving songs out there, other songs that made you happier. Because the one thing we should all agree on is that there was a lot of great music released in the last year.

Also, we need to unite in our hatred of Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire,” because that song is absolutely indefensible.

So here’s the list. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening.

5) New Pornographers - "Crash Years"

In which Bill Simmons is our spirit animal.

I have no idea what this song is really about. It’s probably not important. At its core, its another impossibly catchy AC Newman/Neko Case collaboration. It’s an exquisite pop song. How much do lyrics really matter? Listen to them. They’re almost purposefully inscrutable. I read an interview with Newman where he actually acknowledged that, as a song gets more traditionally poppy, it’s important to add some mystery to the lyrics, lest the whole thing get too sappy. So it’s possible he doesn’t even want you to know what this song means. But here’s my take on it:

I moved to California when people first started throwing around words like “failed state,” when things got so bad they recalled their governor and voted in an action hero to replace him. And yet the California I found has surpassed even my wildest dreams. I got a job when everyone else was losing theirs. I started making money while everyone else watched their savings disappear.

You may be living through them, Aaron, but make no mistake … you are watching the Crash Years. You may have the same eternity blues as the rest of us, but you are a spectator here, rubbernecking at a tragedy that somehow missed you. This is happening around you. It’s a disconnected feeling, isn’t it.

And there’s no other show like it round here. As a rule.

So … I would imagine it means something different to you.


New Pornographers - "The Bleeding Heart Show"
New Pornographers - "My Rights Versus Yours"

4) Robyn - "Dancing On My Own"*

I love Robyn. Wholeheartedly and unironically. Ilana thinks it’s funny. A lot of you think it’s a little weird. It’s just that her songs sounds so intricate, so perfectly constructed, and … I think she manages to separate the message from the medium.

It’s easy to give up on pop music, write it off as vulgar, a lower art form. So much of radio pop does sound assembly-line formulaic, like someone came up with the song title, then the chorus, then built a song around it. And so it’s easy to see this as all pop music is capable of. When music sounds like this, is comprised of these elements … well, it can never be anything but bubblegum. So why get mad when it’s terrible? It’s supposed to be terrible. Just dance, don’t think, don’t feel. It’s only your unrealistic expectations that keep you from enjoying the genre as a necessarily guilty pleasure.

With that as a backdrop, for Robyn to be so intelligent and weird and original, for her to really get at something, something deep at the core of the human condition, for her to aspire to profound … it somehow means more when she does it than when Arcade Fire does it, or when The National does it. Because she’s doing something that a lot of people implicitly believe is impossible.

* There were two versions of this song released in 2010. I went with the Body Talk Part I EP version. I’m sure most of you have very strong opinions on this choice. I had to follow my heart, you guys.


Robyn - "Indestructible"
Robyn - "Show Me Love"

3) Tinashe - "If You Say So"

Of course there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to rock music. The best songs just show you those familiar elements in a way you’re not quite sure if you’ve ever seen before. Tinashe might have a unique backstory (London by way of Zimbabwe), but he’s mining the same ground Britpop artists have been working for more than twenty years now. Those looking for a snarky compliment might call this the best Kooks song ever written, and it’s not like those guys were re-inventing the wheel, either.

So we have this song that’s very much like all the others. It’s better than the others, of course, a propulsive, driving rocket of a song … but it’s cut from the same cloth, no question. There’s just this one thing. The only part of this song that eases off the accelerator at all comes right before the first chorus, after the pre-chorus buildup, at 0:39 – two bars of largely isolated piano. It’s a little bit of delayed gratification, an old trick, and then the chorus hits, and it works so well, and so you’re okay with those eight beats when the song doesn’t really go anywhere, and your brain begins to expect it after the second pre-chorus, at around 1:33. So, then, when he skips it … it’s like being struck by lightning.

And I’m not sure I remember hearing that trick before.


The Kooks - "She Moves In Her Own Way"
Tinashe - "Mr. Presumption"

2) Yeasayer - "O.N.E."

When I started this blog, I spent a lot of time talking about the cultural context of music, about the idea that if you love Song X, you like it because of a lifetime of liking some songs and disliking others, and that they were all necessary to get you to a place where you could love Song X, that if you spent an alternate lifetime listening to other music, you would feel completely differently about that same song. My question was always, “If, today, you could listen to a mixtape of your favorite songs from 2025 … do you think you would like it?” Responses have been split.

“O.N.E.” isn’t actually a song from the future, of course, but it certainly sounds that way, and, if this song is any indication, then the answer to the above question is absolutely, “Yes, I would love to hear tomorrow’s hits today.”

On October 30, this was Ilana’s Song of the Year. It held that title for almost ten full months. Then Ilana discovered something called Foxy Shazam. It was a valiant effort, Yeasayer.


The Very Best - "Mulomo"
Yeasayer - "Madder Red"

1) The Gaslight Anthem - "Boxer"

So this is the song of the year. Why?

I guess the short answer is that “Song of the Year” is often just another way of saying “Song Aaron and Ilana Spent the Most Time Singing In the Car.” It was true last year, it’s true this year, and I hope it always will be. This song demands to be sung. It is an anthem in the best sense of the word.

The long answer, on the other hand, is going to sound like, “I love this song because I heard it on the radio,” but I hope it goes a little bit deeper than that.

I define almost all of the terms of my relationship with music. I suspect this is true for most of you. Ten years ago, we were sitting in front of the TV, waiting to see what video was next in the rotation;* we were driving around trying to find a decent song on the radio. Under those conditions, a song could hit you. It could absolutely blindside you. It could be perfectly unexpected. It could make you sit up and take notice.

* This only makes sense if you assume this is taking place at 3 AM, a programming block when MTV actually played music videos in 2000. I know this from far too much experience.

Today, I always know what’s coming. I sit in front of computer speakers, and I walk around in noise-canceling headphones, and I always know what’s next, because I set up the playlist. Since I control my musical universe, I heard The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang quite a bit this year. It was my favorite record of 2010, and so I heard “Boxer” a lot, basically whenever I wanted to. It was a very comfortable arrangement. It wasn't always my favorite song on the album,* but it was always highly enjoyable.

* And it was number 41 on my Halfway 100.

Then it started getting consistent radio play. And things were different.

I’m not one of those people who’s constantly upset at the state of Top 40 radio. It doesn’t bother me that they don’t play the same things I would play, were I in charge. And, truth be told, a few of the songs on this list* did get airplay this year. But I don’t expect it. And I’m okay with that. The very existence of Justin Bieber is not an affront to my sensibilities. It’s the radio. It’s largely pleasant background noise. Just because I can’t tell Taio Cruz from Bruno Mars doesn’t mean I’m angry with pop culture.

* Broken Bells’ “The High Road” and Black Keys’ “Tighten Up” being the main ones.

So, to hear “Boxer” on the radio, in a store, or in someone else’s car, it elicits that “Yeah! I love these guys! Turn it up!” reaction that I really don’t feel very often anymore. It’s ten year old me waiting by the stereo, hoping to tape “Rhythm is a Dancer.” It’s music existing on its own terms. It’s found happiness. It’s how you’ll watch a movie on TV, commercials and all, even when the DVD is gathering dust on your shelf. It’s somehow better that way.

So yes … I love this song because I heard it on the radio.


The Gaslight Anthem - "The '59 Sound"
The Cast of Glee Covering Bruce Springsteen - "Born to Run"

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