Josh Ritter – The Curse
Josh Ritter could’ve been a poet. “The Curse” has an incredible story of love, one that doesn’t seem like much on its surface: an immortal mummy falls in love with a girl. Ritter’s absolutely astounding lyrics and pitch-perfect acoustic touches make it into an absolutely heart-wrenching tale. There’s a beautiful horn solo in the middle that I can’t help but mention.
There aren’t many songwriters that can weave a tale so effectively in such short time–the song’s five minutes flat–with wonderfully characterized people and strong thematic elements, it’s obvious that Ritter’s in a class of his own. It’s the little details that really push this song, from his first touch being her hair to him correcting her literary papers, and the wonderful wordplay Ritter uses in reflecting the Egyptian theme back to his story. It’s last verse is my favorite lyrical piece of all of 2010 and the song itself almost gets there as a whole but there’s one above it.
“But she’s just one more rag now he’s dragging behind him.”
The National – Bloodbuzz, Ohio
This is a homer pick, I’ll admit it upfront. Starting up the banging drums that kick off “Bloodbuzz Ohio” while seeing the skyline of Cincinnati roll up in front of me was the endpoint to my incredible Chicago roadtrip this October, and it’s an image I can’t help but mention. The National come from Cincy and when Matt Berninger sings “I never married, but Ohio don’t remember me” it’s hard not to think that he didn’t have that exact image in his mind. Over the last year, the National have risen to my second favorite contemporary act, thanks in no small part to High Violet and their absolutely mind-blowing live show–seeing this song played in Ohio left me speechless. Its lyrically ambiguous, Berninger’s signature imagery driving the song’s poeticism while Bryan Devendorf’s drums drive the songs musicality. This one’ll stay in my library for a long, long while.
“I was carried, to Ohio in a swarm of bees.”
Delorean – Stay Close
I’ve talked a lot about going to parties and never quite being happy with the music selection. While “Stay Close” is included in the long list of songs-I-want-to-hear-at-parties, it’s almost silly to complain about. The song is a party. It’s a delight for the ears and it’s gotta be the most fun song to come out this year. It’s bright and dancey and unpretentious and there’s nothing like the “getupgetupgetupgetupgetupgetup” section to actually put me in a good mood.
The song builds and builds like a lot of dance songs do, but it never quite explodes. It just dances around, going up and up until it can’t anymore. And then it just let’s go. Describing this one is futile as is even trying to give it an image. It’s simply whatever the visual for unadulterated fun is.
Typhoon – Starting Over (Bad Habit)
“I’ve started a new beginning, suspiciously like the old one…”
Typhoon’s excellent Hunger and Thirst starts off on an ambiguous note. Ambiguous and undoubtedly honest. But after the first line, Kyle Morton decidedly states “Only this time I’m ready.” And it begins.
The song has one of the simplest, most effective guitar lines I’ve heard to start off an album. Morton’s quivering voice overlays itself perfectly and gradually throughout the song Typhoon’s band members all join in, specifically the glorious horn section. The song builds up and drops, suggesting the cycle apparent in that first line. In fact, the song doesn’t even stop, it just builds into the next, slowly warping into something unrecognizable from its start.
This is my best album-opener of 2010.
Joanna Newsom – Go Long
If Joanna Newsom asked me to jump off a building, I think I’d probably have to do it. Of course, she would ask my so eloquently and poetically that I’d be overwrought by the easy beauty of the request and have to fulfill it somehow. Alright, it’s no secret that I really, really, like Joanna Newsom. I’ve blown over a hundred bucks on her this year, between seeing her live and my two physical copies of Have One on Me.
I think there’s a song for everyone on this album and my particular one has to be “Go Long.” Newsom’s strength has always been easily attaining beauty and eloquence that will speak in a way entirely different from any other artist. “Go Long” is actually a song directed to her ex Bonnie “Prince”Billy, but in directing her feelings through grand images of royalty and pointed references she somehow attains a universality and timelessness. There’s something astounding about mighty, lonely men being told off by their princesses through singing backed by a beautiful harp. But Newsom isn’t really telling anyone off,;she’s not that violent. She makes cool observations and examines her own role in the whole of the relationship and in doing so, she speaks directly to the failures of these lonely, mighty men.
“If I knew you once
Now I know you less.”
Sufjan Stevens – Impossible Soul
I’ll say it right now, I’m never going to write enough to occupy the massive 25 minutes that Stevens’ magnum opus occupies. The Age of Adz was a surprise to everyone, even those expecting something different from the indie darling. No one would have ever put him and auto-tune in the same sentence, let alone though that the two would be actually be together in song.
The song’s divided into five distinct sections. It’s a massive undertaking, even for someone who released an EP longer than most full-length albums. It’s got auto tune, a dance breakdown, the strangest guitar solo you’ve ever heard, and the most poignant lyrics you’ll ever hear in an electronic-based song. It’s also a much more direct route for Sufjan, who has been wrapping his thoughts and feelings around and filtering them through states’ folk stories. This is particularly true of the second section that has dark questions answered by Sufjan’s “No I don’t want to feel pain!”
“Impossible Soul” is the kind of song that a person could write a pretty decent thesis about. It’s incredibly dense, full of ideas and themes and references to parts of his other songs. It talks about love and its trappings, religion and his frustration (see: the third, auto-tuned section), pulling himself together out of self-doubt and letting loose (the fourth) and eventually ending on a bit of an acoustic dour note. It’s all wrapped so thickly in ambiguity though, that’s it’s possible to read whatever you want out of it. It’s the kind of song that makes the English major in me excited about delving deeply into its intricacies.
“Impossible Soul” is absolutely incredible live and anyone on the fence about it has to see it live to be pushed to the side of fandom. The live performance of this epic is half the reason it is so high on my list, from Sufjan’s awkward dancing inspiring a dance party in the audience (at the prestigious Chicago Theater, note) to the awe-inspiring light show.
The Age of Adz is Sufjan’s most directly emotional album and while “Impossible Soul” probably won’t ever have the level of fandom of “Chicago,” it’s an important viewpoint into the enigmatic artist.
“It’s not so impossible!”
The Ordinary – Pink & Blue
A live recording ripped from a low-quality, one take video on Facebook. And it’s number 4. Listening to this in the dead of winter though, it’s the most comforting song in the world. The Ordinary is unsigned–I don’t think they’ve even been in a real studio yet and I had to add album art of my own just to have some–but I really can’t wait to see where they go. These kids, as they say, got potential.
The live recording is special though. Recorded in a small college in Georgia in a single take, the bird chirps and nature sounds are all authentic. And they all sound perfectly timed. (Listen to the bird chipper up on “smile” at 37 seconds.) It sounds like a Disney daycamp, a magic little knoll with ancient woods and happy creatures. A sound that can only really be captured by a bunch of kids doing what they love. The easy beauty of the song is something that’s usually doctored up in the studio, something bands try to get down on tape over and over again, from live recordings to field recordings, but it’s something that only ever gets captured by that rare lucky band doing what they love. If you can’t find a way outside, listen to this song, close your eyes and I’m sure a smile will creep across your face.
I adore “Pink & Blue.”
(This is the only place you’ll find an mp3 of it, so grab it while it’s hot and make sure to support the band by hitting their facebook here)
Gorillaz – On Melancholy Hill
Gorillaz is my third most-listened-to artist ever. “On Melancholy Hill” is, in my humble opinion, their best song. Doing the math’s not hard and it’s easy to see how this one landed at number three. The phrase “Melancholy Hill” alone rolls off the tongue so easily and suggests such a wonderfully vivid image that it’s hard to believe it comes from a pop song–it’s also further proof that Damon Albarn can write a hell of a song.
Full of little production touches courtesy of Albarn himself, it’s an immensely rich song. It’s intricate electronics and spectacular melodies and counter melodies and harmonies and bassline all work together to make the pop song to beat for the next decade. The lyrics are full of wonderful bits of imagery and insights that, though not explicit, convey a potent feeling of longing and regret. But I can’t help feeling the lyrics are a sidenote to the rest of the song, built on beautiful stilts.
It’s the rare pop song that it catchy and poignant, but if I’d say anyone can do it, it’d be Albarn. The man’s been in business for over fifteen years and he’s been at the forefront for a reason. He only seems to get better and “On Melancholy Hill” is his best yet.
Sage Francis – The Best of Times
This song still gives me goosebumps.
Sage Francis’ stark, potent honesty is scary. His lyrical insights into himself, reflecting on his early life, are clearly no-holds-barred and it’s hard to take in all at once. Essentially starting as a spoken word piece, “The Best of Times” is pure poetry. The strife-filled childhood isn’t anything new to the genre of hip-hop, but Francis’ position on the alternative end of the genre allows him creative maneuverability unlike most artists. This track doesn’t gain a real beat until the last bit of the song and even then, it feels brief.
The songs starts with chimes, seeming to reflect a birth, but the first line, “It’s been a long lonely trip, but I’m glad I took it,” looks backward instead of forward. The production on this track is the best of any this year, growing this confessional into a grand life statement. The first half of the song is full of chimes and drones, with huge strings and piano chords that grow and swell and die with Francis’ confessions of his young love. Francis becomes more urgent, more forced in his voice as he travels through this half, drawing back into the first chorus.
“It was the best of times, it was the end of times.”
Then there’s that guitar. Creating a beat that Francis rides into, drawing out the hip-hop in his style. He continues the confessional, drawing briefly into the present– “I still sleeping fully clothed.” Once he becomes immortal, surviving till twelve, the drums finally kick in. And the confessional continues.
There are so many stark moments in this song that it’s not even worth it to try to write them. I’ll try and let Francis speak for himself. It is lyrically my favorite of this year and it should be pretty apparent why.
Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore – Try
This is Sollee’s song. I don’t think there’s any particular doubt about that. It’s also my favorite song of this year.
I’m a huge fan of Sollee, his simple lyricism and bending of the instrument of the cello into something entirely different from its usual association. His debut Learning to Bend is one of my favorites. So then, it follows that I should I like his second album, a collaboration with fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore, proceeds of which went to stop strip coal mining.
So then there’s “Try.” It’s a song I could talk about for a long time, but I think it needs to be heard first and foremost. So scroll down and listen to it. Listen for the incredible plucked cello that opens the song, its ringing occupying a huge space. Sollee’s soft quivering breathing, a light step on a banjo in the background. Some movement and squeaking chair. I can’t say for certain that is recorded live, but I really want to believe that it was.
Listen to the lyrics that touch on a huge array of themes, from religion and determinism to fatherhood and love with just about everything else in between. Listen for the stark observations that cover the lyrics, grand statements wrapped in simple ones. “Sky, sky, sky, can’t see it all at once.” Each verse ends on a poignant single statement lead to by their earlier lines, not pretentious but certainly direct.
Listen for the stomping drum that drives the song onto larger levels, the addition of a banjo, a chorus, cymbal crashes and a guitar on Sollee’s simple cello. Built and then dropped for Sollee’s final statement.
A beautifully, poignantly, optimistic one that may be my favorite line regarding love ever.
It is genuinely difficult to convey why I love this song so much; the farther along I got into the list the more this statement seemed to be self-evident. I am close in some way or another to every song on this list, a factor driven by somewhat indescribable personal connection. Affection is a word for a feeling, but without that feeling the word is meaningless. I have a deep affection for all of these songs–2010 was a significant year for music and for me–and to try to describe that to strangers, or even close friends, is folly. I can only hope that you, dear reader, enjoyed the songs on this list and my write-ups if you read them.
The album list is coming, dear reader, but until then,