It may be a bit early, but I don’t anticipate anything from Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack to come close to making this list, so in no particular order here are my 20 favorites from 2010:
“Home” & “Dance Yrself Clean” // LCD Soundsystem
It’s difficult to put into words how great these songs are. It’s also hard to make a list of people James Murphy is competing with. It’s a cliche, but he really is in a league of his own. The cloying self-consciousness in his voice, the shambling imperfection of the instrumentation and the generous length of these songs all work in concert, drawing the listener into a personal relationship that the lyrics underline. Can anybody else accomplish that and get people dancing simultaneously?
“A More Perfect Union” // Titus Andronicus
I saw these guys play at a record store the day their album came out in late February, and they brought the house down. Then in July at Pitchfork Music Festival, they brought a much larger house down. The energy and enthusiasm they bring to the stage (and their recordings) is still refreshing on every listen. The Monitor is my album of the year, at least it was before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
“Slowdance” // Matthew Dear
As good as Black City is, it doesn’t feel like Matthew Dear has hit his peak; he gets better and more accessible with every album. “Slowdance” still hits the pleasure centers of his house music past, but slows things down a bit to add lyrical and textural depth.
“Out Go the Lights” // Spoon
Spoon have been one of my favorite bands for going on a decade now, and they continue to amaze me with their easy experimentation and studio magic. Transference is distinctive for its rough, demo-like production, but to me it’s more than just that, it’s a continuation of Britt Daniel and Jim Eno’s search for new forms of authenticity. On several tracks, “Out Go the Lights” included, I find my brain rushing ahead of Daniel’s lyrics, completing thoughts even when their resolution is denied. Nothing feels more personal and authentic than that.
“Stranded” // The Walkmen
The Walkmen are the ultimate synthesizers of influence. Listening to their new album Lisbon, you can pick out the rhythms and melodies of rockabilly, calypso, country and western, and mariachi, but they’re always at the service of that unnamable Walkmen sound. Hamilton Leithauser’s trademark howl is restrained on “Stranded,” but the mariachi brass adds to this track’s yearning power.
“Afraid of Everyone” // The National
It’s the quick little guitar lick introduced around the 1:12 mark that gets me every time, but the lyrics, dramatizing the process of coming to terms with a new reality, don’t hurt either. High Violet, and especially “Afraid of Everyone,” is the sound of The National firing on all cylinders.
“Jamelia (feat. Luke LaLonde)” // Caribou
I hate to say it, but what’s always held Caribou back from being one of my favorite bands are the limitations of Dan Snaith as a lead vocalist. This track, my favorite from their album Swim, substitutes the voice of Luke LaLonde (from Born Ruffians) to dramatic effect.
“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” // Arcade Fire
What’s that you say? Arcade Fire recorded an electro-pop anthem for suburban kids? And Regine takes lead? There’s no way it’s anything but amazing…
“Mmm Hmm (feat. Thundercat)” // Flying Lotus
This year the magnetic pole of hip hop officially shifted to Los Angeles. The circle surrounding Steven Ellison, including The Gaslamp Killer and Samiyam, have successfully fused the blunted Stones Throw style of late J Dilla and Madlib with the glitchy sampling of Dubstep. FlyLo’s Cosmogramma is a stunning listen for its stylistic fusions and fearless experimentalism. “Mmm Hmm” is its standout track.
“Ancestors” // Gonjasufi (produced by Flying Lotus)
Here FlyLo’s clattering, bass-heavy backdrop melds perfectly with Gonjasufi’s incomparable vocal manner, both seemingly washed in the harsh light and heat of the desert. With tracks produced by both FlyLo and The Gaslamp Killer, Gonja’s album is as close to a cohesive statement of purpose as the LA hip-hop scene is gonna get.
“I Only Know (What I Know Now)” // James Blake
I could have chosen any number of James Blake tracks from this year. From “CMYK” to “Limit To Your Love,” Blake was on a roll all year long. What stands out about “I Only Know…” is its prodigious use of silence. Also of note is the feeling of constructedness this track exudes. I like to think of it as a sequence of spaces or a building, something you can inhabit with your entire being for five minutes, if you so choose.
“Love Cry” // Four Tet
In which Kieran Hebden successfully synthesizes the glitchy electronics of his past with the messy humanity of his collaborations with Steve Reid, only to find that it ends up sounding like house music.
“Rill Rill” // Sleigh Bells
On the strength of this track alone, I think we should all get together and convince Sleigh Bells to turn the volume down. Not many of their Treats tracks “have a heart” or a soul, but this one has both in spades.
“Take It In” // Hot Chip
I’ve always thought of Hot Chip as the great humanists in electronic music. Theirs is a dance music indubitably made by and for human beings. The varying textures of this track are what makes it amazing to me. The first verse contains the obligatory bloops and blips (this is Hot Chip we’re talking about), but during the chorus those synthetic sounds are replaced by four or five drum tracks on top of a simple piano loop, and one of the sweetest vocal melodies these guys have ever written.
“Dancing On My Own” // Robyn
Robyn was the standout performance at this year’s Pitchfork Music Fest in Chicago, and this is the standout track from the trilogy of Body Talk albums she released this year, but that sells “Dancing” short. Robyn isn’t just asking us to dance, she’s asking us to feel the forlorn jealousy the lyrics describe. Emotionally, this is lightyears more mature than whatever Katy Perry is yelling about on the charts this week.
“Tightrope (feat. Big Boi)” // Janelle Monae
As much as I love Big Boi’s Sir Luscious Leftfoot: Son of Chico Dusty, nothing on it hits me as hard as this collaboration with future-pop diva Janelle Monae. Produced by Monae herself with Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning, “Tightrope” successfully synthesizes the prodigious riffage of soul revival with the Southern-style hip hop of Organized Noize.
“Yamaha” // The-Dream
What a ridiculously pleasurable song this is. By unapologetically ripping off Prince, The-Dream finally found the sweet spot for the type of raunchy, danceable R&B he’s always been capable of producing. What’s unfortunate is that “the Minneapolis sound” probably won’t be making a comeback on the strength of this track alone… I’m looking at you, Justin Timberlake.
“Power” & “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)” // Kanye West
After a series of missteps and a year out of the limelight, the heroic return of America’s favorite narcissist is complete. This pair of performances on Saturday Night Live proved it. The Vanessa Beecroft-meets-Michael Jackson performance motif he uses here is original and appropriate, and it is repeated in the long-form video for “Runaway” to dramatic effect. When Pitchfork gave My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a coveted 10.0, I wasn’t terribly surprised. You have to respect when an artist simultaneously reaches for an intensely personal expression and universal appeal the way Kanye did. When it actually works, it’s beautiful indeed.