Compiling this year’s Top 40 was much harder for me than last year. Is that due to a lack of worthy material? I tend to doubt it – but it sure felt like it. I spent a lot of time listening to new music and feeling very uninspired by a lot of it. That makes me start to think that I'm getting old, or not getting what's going on. But I have a feeling that songcraft has become a lost art - or maybe it's just obscured by the glut of mediocre crap that's out there. There may be marginally more needles out there, but the haystack has gotten a hell of a lot bigger.
And with that negativity out of the way, I'm more convinced than ever that all it takes is one - artist, song, album, or innovation to change the game anew. Nothing just is, and while it seems as though, in John Lennon's words from forty years ago, "everybody had a hard year," anything really is possible.
Have an amazing holiday, a tremendous New Year, and let's make next year and the next decade a great and soulful one.
1. Jay-Z with Alicia Keys – “Empire State Of Mind”
The exception that proved the rule to the new music business, the song of the year proved that it’s still possible to get a fragmented audience to agree on something as long as you bring the goods. While the Blueprint 3 may have been inconsistent, this track was indelible, unforgettable and undeniable, and backed up Jigga’s boasts to the hilt. The new Sinatra, indeed.
2. Peaches – “Talk To Me”
What I’ve always loved about Peaches is her commitment to making people uncomfortable and shattering their complacency. “Talk To Me” is the sound of her hand reaching through the speakers, grabbing her lover by the collar and shaking them until they get their head out of their ass – simultaneously scary and very sexy.
3. Florence & The Machine – “Kiss With A Fist”
The best song from one of the best albums of the year. “Soul-inspired indie rock” was what I read about this, and damn if this song didn’t back up the claim. And like the best soul singles, Florence Welch makes her point in a little bit over two minutes. AND she did a Candi Staton cover (“You’ve Got The Love”). I’m in.
4. U2 – “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”
No Line On The Horizon didn’t do much for me, and I’ve come to think that they’re the most overrated band of their generation. But this song reminds me why I once loved them – Bono’s phrasing in the chorus is like an eagle in flight, and while I’ve heard that Edge guitar part in a zillion different variations, criticizing him for it would be like giving Keith Richards shit for playing variations of the same riff for 45 years.
5. Tegan & Sarah – “The Cure”
I’m still waiting for them to make a masterpiece, which Sainthood most definitely is not. But “The Cure” is more than enough to keep me intrigued. Filled with compassion, caring and sex, the track is such an irresistible invitation/come on, it’s easy to imagine Prince covering it.
6. Me’Shell NdegeOcello – “Mass Transit”
Dislocation, isolation and the simplest and perhaps most profound truth of the year: “At the end of the day, nobody wants to be alone.” Twitchy and discomforting, it sounds as though it was written for Kid A. After almost fifteen years, she’s doing her best work.
7. Lily Allen – “The Fear”
The great smart-ass provides a superb critique of the failures of material goods to fulfill, without denying the power of its pleasures. It’s Not Me It’s You was inconsistent, but not only does she have greatness within her, consider that she’s already great - and has a lot more growing up to do.
8. Passion Pit – “Little Secrets”
In an alternate universe, this was a #1 single and its “higher & higher” chorus was played during basketball and hockey games across the country. In this universe, a bunch of hipsters liked it a lot.
9. Dirty Projectors – “Temecula Sunrise”
Avant-Garde pop is what this is supposed to be, and they found enough balance between the two to keep me happy. Pretention is this band’s mortal enemy and natural habitat, but if they sprinkle the incandescence of this track in enough of their other work, they’ll be fine.
10. Franz Ferdinand – “No You Girls”
A great piece of modern dance-rock that’s testament to the eternal power of beautiful women.
11. Bruce Springsteen – “The Last Carnival”
There’s no way to look at Working On A Dream as anything other than a misfire, the main proof of which is that Springsteen barely played the thing live. But this tribute to E Street organist Danny Federici is a poignant gem; weighted with 40 years of friendship, love, and the miraculous, where even death does not do them part.
12. Dave Sitek – “With A Girl Like You”
The TV On The Radio maestro does a cover of the Troggs song from 1966 for the Dark Was The Night compilation and brings a haunted obsessiveness to the proceedings. Extra credit for a fine use of horns.
13. Phoenix – “1901”
It just sounds good. Sometimes it doesn't have to be deep.
14. Florence & The Machine – “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”
She gets compared to Kate Bush and Bjork, but Florence Welch is more soulful than either, and her real antecedent is Marianne Faithful – ethereal and angelic, but firmly grounded in the real world and its irresolvable contradictions.
15. Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done”
A Daptoned piece of retro soul, the track transcends its slavish devotion to sonic authenticity because of Shelton’s piercing growl and some sublime backing vocals.
16. Madeline Peyroux – “I Must Be Saved”
The pleasures of Peyroux’s Bare Bones are subtle, but infinitely rewarding, much like this track. Peyroux sings with restraint, subtlety, warmth and wit – traits that couldn’t be more out of fashion in today’s pop mainstream.
17. Animal Collective – “My Girls”
I listened to Merriweather Post Pavilion ten to fifteen times, liked it enough, but it didn’t really speak to me. “My Girls” does. The fact that it has got some killer hooks going help immeasurably. Yeah, the lyrics are probably a tad too oblique, but they’re geeks, so have some sympathy and forgive them their cleverness – they’d be lost without it.
18. Elvis Costello – “My All Time Doll”
The old misanthrope (not really) reaches back and writes a song worthy of his glory days, filled with piss, vinegar, resentment and an arrangement befitting his station in life.
19. Justin Townes Earle – “What I Mean To You”
I never got a chance to go to Bakersfield, California in the late 1940’s and slow dance and fall in love with a beautiful red-lipsticked girl with auburn hair wearing a clingy dress that was soft to the touch. But if I had, this is the music I would have liked to have done it to.
20. Them Crooked Vultures – “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I”
In a rock environment where it’s natural to wonder where everyone’s balls have gone, this is a welcome reprieve, even if the songs aren’t all that. But the riffage in this song makes concerns about songcraft seem like a mere trifle, at least for a moment.
21. Passion Pit – “The Reeling”
I didn’t get to experience this song in its natural habitat – the dance floor. But this song is great enough that it makes me wish I had. God loves well-placed hi-hat kicks – even if it’s in dance music for hipsters.
22. Bob Dylan – “If You Ever Go To Houston”
In an America of the (not so) creeping corporate takeover, Mr. Zimmerman, more than any major performer of the past decade, seems intent on preserving the musical heritage of post-war U.S. prior to the Interstate Highway System. If he retires to somewhere in rural Mexico to play accordion in a Mariachi band for German tourists, I won’t be surprised.
23. Bruce Springsteen – “This Life”
Bruce gets in touch with the white pop/rock of his youth, and with a bass line right out of Pet Sounds, he makes a shimmering ode to late middle age contentment, with an implicit acknowledgment through the whole thing that the end isn’t that far off.
24. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Heads Will Roll”
I still couldn’t care less about them, but for one song at least, they got me.
25. Miranda Lambert – “Only Prettier”
Pedal steel and a smart and pretty (in that order) girl that don’t take shit. AND a sense of humor. I don't need much more that that.
26. Allen Toussaint – “West End Blues”
The great producer, songwriter, arranger, gentleman and ambassador of New Orleans music makes Louis Armstrong very, very proud.
27. Manchester Orchestra – “I’ve Got Friends”
I got heavily hyped on this one and didn’t really get it, except for this song. A good chorus goes a long way. Remember that.
28. A.C. Newman – “Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer”
I haven’t paid much attention to Newman’s music since the New Pornographers 2001 album, Mass Romantic, finding it increasingly dull. But with an acoustic riff akin to a matador fending off a bull, this track got me re-interested in Newman’s work, at least for the duration of the song’s three and a half minutes.
29. Beirut – “La Llorona”
I have nothing clever to say about this one – I just find it beautiful.
30. Monsters Of Folk – “Ahead Of The Curve”
Conor Oberst sings without even sounding remotely whiny, and sounding reminiscent of “The Weight,” he sounds more his own man as part of a band than he ever has on his own.
31. Lady GaGa – “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”
I have a feeling that her shallowness is a sham – but it works for her. Impenetrable in a way Madonna never was, what she has in common with Madge is a killer work ethic. Andy Warhol would have loved her.
32. Florence & The Machine – “You’ve Got The Love”
They make a lost Candi Staton song grand, orchestral and majestic. They’re easily the rookies of the year, no doubt about it.
33. Built To Spill – “Good Ol’ Boredom”
Quietly one of the best American bands for the past 15+ years, Doug Martch’s voice is a tried and true indie commodity, and he sounds like he hasn’t aged a day. They just do what they do, and do it really well.
34. The Flaming Lips – “Evil”
I prefer less their more song-based albums like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, but I found this track hypnotic and moody enough to go back to for repeated listening.
35. The xx – “Islands”
Slinky and seductive, this new British band has been the recipient of some strong buzz courtesy of Pitchfork and a host of others. “Islands” captures the magic of falling hard and the magical time when the world seems to end at the edge of the bed you’re sharing with the new object of your desire.
36. M. Ward – “Never Had Nobody Like You”
A song that could have been recorded in 1957, which is about the biggest compliment I can give it. Except perhaps that Carl Perkins would have sounded great doing it. Maybe Dion should cover it.
37. Wilco – “You And I”
I still find them dull overall, and seeing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (zzzzzzzz) on so many “Best Album Of The Decade” lists annoyed me. But amidst another album I found rather boring, the simple charm of this one broke through to me.
38. The Doves – “Kingdom Of Rust”
Ok, so Kingdom Of Rust is not The Last Broadcast, but I’ll take it. They make somewhat inscrutable music, often more vibe than song, but the orchestral grandeur of this song worked beautifully.
39. Mary J. Blige – “Said and Done”
Listening to Stronger With Each Tear, it’s clear that Mary has been making the same album since 2001’s No More Drama; breakup songs, inspirational songs, self-affirmations, suffering-in-love songs, etc. Here, she teeters back and forth on the line of cliché, but the pre-chorus works so well that I couldn’t care less.
40. Alice Russell – “Hurry On Now”
A re-worked version of a great single she released in 2007, it doesn’t make it any less of a wonderful song. Pot Of Gold was a major disappointment for me, but with quality material, she’s still a singer to pay attention to. Someone get her some good songs, please.