Sunday, January 10, 2010

The 30 Best Singles Of 2009: 15-1

15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs


Brooklyn hipsters do the club makeover in style, causing a mass epidemic of blogger salivating… for good reason. Hands down the finest YYY moment since the heyday of “Maps.”

14. Big Boi featuring Gucci Mane
Shine Blockas


Just when you thought Andre 3000 was the talented one, Big Boi comes roaring back with his best track in damn near a decade... and that Harold Melvin sample? Genius. Now release the album already.

13. Basement Jaxx


A summer highlight as giddy and glorious as you’d expect from a Basement Jaxx comeback, all Day-Glo craziness and AutoTuned climaxes.

12. The Airborne Toxic Event
Sometime Around Midnight


Finally, the anthem for anyone who’s ever gotten drunk and blown off (not necessarily in that order) at some craptastic bar. (Piano-led band optional.) Based on the amount of top-of-the-lungs singing that occurs whenever this now gets played, that’s a lot of you.

11. Annie
Songs Remind Me Of You

[Totally/Smalltown Supersound]

Not sure what’s in the water in Scandinavia, but between Robyn, The Knife, and Annie, no other region pulls off the mix of chilly, futuristic electronica and human-sized heartbreak better. The highlight of the great, eclectic, underrated Don't Stop.

10. The Gaslight Anthem
The '59 Sound


Springsteen-indebted punks with a healthy dose of Social D in their diet concoct the best Irish-wake rabble-rouser since that song from The Departed. I discovered their same-named album too late for my “Best Of 2008” list; consider their inclusion this year my mea culpa.

9. Kelly Clarkson
My Life Would Suck Without You


A fine return to form for our all-time favorite Idol, and so what if there’s more than a passing resemblance to “Since U Been Gone”? I defy anyone not to have a smile on their face by the time that sticky-sweet chorus rolls around.

8. Grizzly Bear
Two Weeks


Brooklyn indie rockers drag the Beach Boys into the 21st century, complete with gorgeous harmonies, ethereal melodies, and (naturally) a really really weird video.

7. The Avett Brothers
I And Love And You


An entire decade’s worth of touring and independent releases finally culminates in this, the Avetts’ watershed moment, a song so gorgeous and heavy you can almost hear all ten years of perseverance in that chorus.

6. Silversun Pickups
Panic Switch


As Billy Corgan continues to destroy his legacy step by egocentric step, Silversun Pickups step into the void with a Pumpkins homage better than anything the real band has done since Mellon Collie. Heavy as a hammer and drunk on its own lyrical ridiculousness—and all the more infectious because of it.

5. Bat For Lashes


Like Kate Bush fronting Fleetwood Mac, “Daniel” is at once chilly and catchy, wistful and wary. Coupled with the equally startling video, it’s one of the most haunted singles in ages.

4. Pearl Jam
The Fixer


Nevermind the corporate ad campaign; the once-and-future grunge forebears haven’t sounded this damn vital in over a decade, and you know what? Mass acceptance kinda suits them. Again.

3. Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys
Empire State Of Mind

[Roc Nation/Atlantic]

When S. Carter first called himself “the black Sinatra,” people snickered. No one’s laughing now. New York’s brand-new, omnipresent, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head anthem, with MVP Alicia Keys destroying that chorus as Hova gets everyone’s damn hands up one more time.

2. Kings Of Leon
Use Somebody


Nashville superstars-in-training complete their coronation as America’s biggest band of 2009 with a once-in-a-lifetime single, universal enough to spawn a thousand cover versions and massive enough to shake stadiums to their very foundations.

1. Phoenix


2009’s best single spent almost the entire year taking a long and winding path to greatness, from a free February download and a pre-album live performance on Saturday Night Live in March, to the Cadillac commercial that helped the song finally hit alternative radio in the fall, and, in the waning weeks of December, the Billboard Hot 100 proper. But don’t celebrate “1901” for marketing, but rather the simply grass-roots act of a fantastic song finding its audience, one listener at a time. Even now, nearly a year on, it still hasn’t lost an ounce of its effortless effervescence, a perfect slice of pop perfection for the ages.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The 30 Best Singles Of 2009: 30-16

30. Wilco
You Never Know


Chicago’s finest dive into one of their (far-too-infrequent) light-hearted romps, arguably their breeziest concoction since Summerteeth.

29. Kelly Clarkson
I Do Not Hook Up


Nobody wants to be a role model… except perhaps Ms. Clarkson. Great hook, great production, great message; why wasn’t this bigger?

28. Lady Gaga


Given the choice between this or, say, the soul-crushing banality of the Black-Eyed Peas, I’ll take the weird art-project Madonna wanna-be every time.

27. The Avett Brothers
Slight Figure Of Speech


For those who think the brothers Avett went all “soft” on their major-label debut, a nicely raucous throwback to the old days. Hilarious video too.

26. The Very Best featuring Erza Koenig
Warm Heart Of Africa

[Green Owl]

Invigorating Afropop with an electro sheen... and a Vampire Weekend cameo to boot!

25. Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck & Method Man
House Of Flying Daggers

[Ice H2O/EMI]

The hip-hop equivalent of the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and probably the closest we’ll ever get to the glory days of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

24. Muse

[Warner Bros.]

Stadium-rousing anthem from the heir apparent to Queen: gloriously big, vaguely ridiculous, and with the Gary Glitter beat to boot.

23. The Lonely Island featuring T-Pain
I'm On A Boat

[Universal Republic]

That a “joke” club banger from the SNL guys turned out to be a better—and more successful--hip-hop track than most of the actual hip-hop released in 2009 tells you all you need to know about the lousy state of modern urban music. That, plus T-Pain is always hilarious.

22. Röyksopp featuring Robyn
The Girl And The Robot

[Astralwerks/Wall Of Sound]

At some point, Robyn will finally release a lousy song; until then, her hot streak continues, this time with a standout from the Norwegian duo’s third album.

21. Phoenix


The age-old struggle of art vs. commerce, as filtered through the lens of a 19th century Hungarian composer. “From a mess to the masses,” indeed.

20. Maxwell
Pretty Wings


Has it really been nine years? Maxwell rolls back the clock with this effortless comeback single, instantly showing up the entire R&B genre with one achingly pretty ballad.

19. Thom Yorke
Hearing Damage

[Chop Shop/Atlantic]

A busy “down” year for Thom Yorke—four new solo tracks, plus two more from Radiohead—capped with a dark-tinged number so great, you can (almost) forgive the whole horrible Twilight connection.

18. The Flaming Lips with Stardeath & White Dwarfs

[Warner Bros.]

Bad idea? Warner Brothers’ Covered: A Revolution In Sound, featuring “highlights” like Adam Sandler impersonating Neil Young. (Seriously.) Great idea? The Lips turning early, chirpy Madonna single into freak-out jam. The ability to support this song, but not its heinous album counterpart, is the entire reason iTunes exists.

17. Paramore
Brick By Boring Brick

[Fueled By Ramen]

Yet another catchy-as-hell single from my favorite pop-punkers of the decade—this time with a fantastically messed-up video to boot.

16. Alicia Keys
Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart


Pretty great fourth quarter for Ms. Keys: first the inescapable Jay-Z collab, next the best slice of Prince-styled heartache since Sign ‘O’ The Times. Can't wait to see what she does in 2010.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The 100 Albums Of The Decade: 10-1

10. Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts Of The Great Highway

[Jetset, 2003]

When the decade began, Mark Kozelek was in the midst of a career downturn, releasing solo albums of reworked AC/DC and John Denver covers as his former band, Red House Painters, dissolved in a mess of major-label mergers. Even diehards, then, couldn’t have predicted the remarkable comeback of Ghosts Of The Great Highway, a flat-out masterpiece that bests all else in Kozelek’s critically-acclaimed back catalog. With its restless reach, encompassing everything from acoustic lullabies (“Gentle Moon”) to Neil-Young-esque guitar workouts (“Salvador Sanchez”), Ghosts is epic without ever feeling exhausting, and that’s never clearer than on “Duk Koo Kim,” a hypnotizing journey that stretches for fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds—without a single wasted moment.

9. The National

[Beggars Banquet, 2007]

The slow-burn album of the century thus far, Boxer landed near the low end of my “10 Best” list in 2007, but two years later, it sounds more intoxicating—and timely—than ever. From “Fake Empire” on down, The National deliver an unflinching requiem for a lost decade all “showered and blue-blazered,” but they do so without an ounce of preaching; this is a work that unfolds its charms gradually, painstakingly, until each subsequent listen reveals additional depths, until every simple-on-the-surface track begins to resonate like a mantra.

8. Brand New
The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me

[Interscope, 2006]

No act of the new millennium—punk, alternative, or otherwise—displayed as much range over the course of a single record as Brand New did on their mind-bogglingly great third album. Using religious confusion as a springboard, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me fused screamo’s dynamics to Eighties atmospherics, alternating between tension (“Sowing Season”) and tenderness (“Handcuffs”)—or, more often than not, incorporating both (“Jesus,” “Degausser”) to heart-stopping effect. A challenging, defiant disc that sounds just as fresh as it did in 2006, The Devil And God… is pure jagged brilliance, offering shards of transcendence amidst the wreckage.

7. Ryan Adams

[Bloodshot, 2000]

Adams’ solo debut could’ve easily been a “licking the wounds” release, a retreat to his old home Bloodshot after major-label shuffling left both his band (Whiskeytown) and album (Pneumonia) in limbo. Instead, two weeks in Nashville with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (among others) resulted in a bona-fide Americana classic, the pressure-free vibe prompting Adams to compose a cycle of achingly gorgeous gems (“Oh My Sweet Carolina,” “My Winding Wheel”) with highlights as disparate as the loose-limbed, ramshackle “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” and the oh-so-lovely, oh-so-bitter “Come Pick Me Up.” In a career known more for quantity than quality, Heartbreaker stands alone, a late-night lullaby for the wrecked romantic in everyone.

6. Wilco
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

[Nonesuch, 2002]

Sure, there was enough drama surrounding this album to fuel a (pretty great) documentary, but that’s not the real reason Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands out in the remarkable run of albums Wilco released from 1996 (Being There) to 2004 (A Ghost Is Born). With its themes of dislocation and mortality, YHF nails the tenor of our times like few other works this decade; it’s arguably the definitive post-9/11 album, thanks to both eerily prescient songwriting (“Ashes Of American Flags,” “Poor Places”) and the hovering, haunted production adding weight to even the simplest Tweedy composition. Most importantly, it broke Wilco out of the alt-country ghetto once and for all, setting them free to roam a musical landscape much like the one YHF conjures: a little cracked, a bit bruised, yet still beautiful.

5. Coldplay

[Capitol, 2000]

Lest we forget, there was a time when Coldplay was not the second coming of U2, but merely four British lads making their first record—and, inadvertently but incredibly, capturing lightning in a bottle. Even in its louder moments, there’s nothing grandiose or inflated about Parachutes; this is a twinkling, hushed affair, with Chris Martin’s falsetto hovering like a whisper over the most aching moments (“Sparks,” “Trouble”) Coldplay ever committed to tape. Hate the quartet now, if you must, but understand that every world-conquering act has its humble roots… and in the case of Parachutes, there’s magic in every second.

4. Death Cab For Cutie

[Barsuk, 2003]

It’s been a long, strange trip for Death Cab this decade, from cult releases on tiny Barsuk Records to recording the lead single for a giant Hollywood production in 2009… but if you’re wondering how Ben Gibbard’s 4-track solo project morphed into one of the biggest indie-rock bands in America, look no further than 2003’s triumphant pinnacle. Transatlanticism is Death Cab at their finest, from small-scale anthems (“The New Year”) to ruminative pop (“Title And Registration”), but it’s the expansive, widescreen experimentalism throughout that truly heralds greatness. Countless other acts have appropriated Transatlanticism’s core values since, and no wonder; this is the sound of ambition achieved, organically and honestly.

3. Damien Rice

[Vector, 2002]

Small coincidence that an abnormally large number of albums on this list were created without any label support whatsoever (from Robyn to Bleed American to Radiohead’s own In Rainbows), but no other independent success story resonated more strongly in the 2000s than this word-of-mouth masterpiece. Rice’s voice, like his writing, is passionate, open, unafraid—but I suspect there's a deeper explanation for why his self-released debut went on to triple platinum sales in the U.K. and a Shortlist Music Prize win in America; from the bedroom recordings to the hand-crafted artwork, everything about O feels intimate, unvarnished, with no separation at all between artist and audience. A life-changing album in some quarters—or simply the sort of private secret that spreads from person to person and country to country, its heartfelt (and heartbroken) depths reflecting the lives of every person who encounters it.

2. Arcade Fire

[Merge, 2004]

As its title implies, Funeral is a eulogy of sorts, dedicated to those who died during its creation; the songs on Funeral, however, are nothing short of the most intoxicating, exhilarating, life-affirming music to appear this entire decade. Arcade Fire’s sound—a three-dimensional explosion of strings and voices, distortion and pounding—is already the stuff of legend, but it’s the group’s relentless, wide-eyed humanity that truly sets them apart: the children digging tunnels in the snow on “Neighborhood #1,” the neighbors dancing during “Laika,” the to-the-rafters chorus that made “Wake Up” an underground anthem in 2005. Electricity flows through every bit of Funeral, but, more importantly, it flows both ways, turning each listener into part of a community, and making Arcade Fire’s glorious din feel like the essence of hope itself.

1. Radiohead
Kid A

[Capitol, 2000]

Flash back, if you can, to the autumn of 2000: CD sales were at an all-time high, Napster was changing the entire dynamic of music piracy, and Radiohead’s hugely-anticipated follow-up to OK Computer had just leaked onto the Net. In response, the band streamed the entire thing, for free, before its physical release, and thus countless users (including yours truly) fought buffers and bad connections to hear the opening strains of “Everything In Its Right Place”… or, in other words, the 21st century equivalent of Dylan going electric at Newport.

And therin lies the brilliance of Kid A; like no other record since, it upends every notion of mainstream success, “alternative” rock, and even Radiohead itself, offering a universe where the most gifted singer of our era turns his voice into an electronic bleat and a three-guitar band abandons the idea of actual guitars for most of the disc. And yet, for all its polarizing infamy, Kid A is also a work of absolute genius, an all-or-nothing experiment that paid off in critical (and commercial) spades, and quite possibly the bravest move ever from a band not exactly known for playing it safe. Beyond that, it’s arguably Radiohead’s most complete listen, a perfect balancing act where every weird sojourn (“Treefingers”) and discordant blast (“The National Anthem”) is absolutely necessary, as necessary as the high-water marks (“Idioteque,” “How To Disappear Completely”) that still hypnotize even today. Years from now, when music exists only as a random collection of electronic files, scholars will point to Kid A as a milestone, the last truly important—and absolutely vital—album. Of the decade. If not beyond.