Required Listenings Top 5: Songs and Albums of 2010

Cover of "Here Comes Science"

Sorry, TMBG.

Now, before I get into my post, I should note that you, Reader, are probably going to end up asking, “Why no Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Daniel?” Well, that’s because I haven’t listened to it yet. I’ve put out a request for it at the library, haven’t gotten it yet. I tell you what, Reader, once I listen to it in full, I’ll review it. So there.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, I had a bit of a tough time coming up with a list of only 5 songs and 5 (mutually-exclusive) albums, because there were a bunch of great albums this year. Among the albums I wanted to put on this list: Eminem’s Recovery (up for a Grammy), Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Sea (up for the Mercury Prize), They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science (okay, not really, but I had to give some props to what I’ve been calling “School House Rock! of the 21st Century” to my friends and neighbors); among the songs, “Birthday” by Kings of Leon; Vampire Weekend’s “Horchata”; and John Legend and the Roots’ “Wake Up Everybody.” As a result, it’s a pretty tight list. It may not be the best-of, but it’s a few of my favorites. Let’s start with the Top 5 Songs, and with…

5. “F**k You,” Cee Lo Green (from The Lady-Killer)

Yes, I’m keeping it clean, there might be children reading. (After all, I just mentioned Here Comes Science.) But, I should note that this song makes it as much for its sheer vulgarity (itself as much of a middle finger to radio play as a middle finger to the girl Gnarls Barkley lead Cee Lo sings about in the song) as its great old-school style. Between the music and the lyrics, it turns the Motown sound on its head with its profane lyrics, and does it with aplomb. (Let’s put it this way, even Gwynyth Paltrow didn’t screw it up – no pun intended – on Glee.)

4. “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire (from The Suburbs)

While Arcade Fire lead vocalist Win Butler has said that the album is “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs,” this song doesn’t really jive with that message, in my opinion. The fact that “when the first bombs fell” in the (assumingly metaphorical) in the “suburban war,” the speakers “were already bored” doesn’t exactly speak to how wondrous the suburbs are. Maybe I’m biased (having lived for 18 years in as close to the ‘burbs as you can get while in New York City, and then getting into Manhattan), but I just don’t think this song individually doesn’t match up with the message of the rest of the album.

That said, the song itself is great. Melodically, frankly, it’s fantastic. Lyrically, frankly, it’s fantastic. It’s catchy and, in contrast with its lyrics, kind of fun. However, while The Suburbs will be back later on my Top 5 Albums list, “The Suburbs” ends up at #4, simply for its sheer dichotomy from what’s supposed to be a narrative.

3. “Rolling in the Deep,” ADELE (from 21)

Can I please put this on my list? Pretty, pretty please? I know Adele’s next album doesn’t come out until next February, and I know that this was just a single from that album. But this song shows a great deal of growth from an artist I greatly admire. While fellow Brit Duffy (whose debut album, Rockferry, I greatly enjoyed) sort of fizzled with her attempt to change her sound (at least, that’s what I heard; I haven’t listened to Endlessly, yet), if this song – a lot more rock-ish for the soulful Adele, with angrier, grittier lyrics, is indicative of her new angle, then sign me up for the new Adele. It’s kind of weird that what makes the song even better are the back-up singers during the chorus, but whatever works, I guess.

2. “Cold War,” Janelle Monáe (from ArchAndroid)

Considering I didn’t know about Janelle Monáe until about three months ago, I’m a little shocked myself that it charted this high on my list. I mean, I think I saw her previously at the ESPY Awards, and I remember her style of dress – tuxedo, large bouffant – once I was re-introduced to it, when I saw the “Many Moons” video, but I didn’t really hear her music to any large degree.

To which I say, why the hell not? This song’s probably most indicative of her sheer vocal talent – along with the most separate from her concept album ArchAndroid (it’s not really part of the mythology behind the album, itself part of a series of four suites divided over three albums) – and I’m shocked that it really hasn’t gotten airplay. While her other single, “Tightrope,” presents her showmanship (I mean, for goodness sake, she paid tribute to James freakin’ Brown in the song by wearing a cape for the end of it, that alone is showmanship), this presents her ability as a singer, hopefully an ability put on display for a long, long time.

1. “You Are Not Alone,” Mavis Staples (from You Are Not Alone)

On its surface, “You Are Not Alone” isn’t very much, especially the version I love – the one played in the YouTube video by Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy – as it’s just Staples singing and Tweedy on acoustic guitar (and, on the record, back-up singers). But that simplicity is what makes it great and, frankly, a little haunting – especially when it’s just Staples singing. What makes it even cooler is that it’s just two really good musicians – albeit two really good musicians seemingly so far apart that they’d make a not-half-bad episode of Iconoclasts – just having fun and making music.

And now, my 5 favorite albums of 2010. Here’s what I’m going to do: along with listing and discussing the album itself, I’m also going to present my favorite song (and, for the top 3, songs) on the album. So here we go with the #5 favorite album…

5. Vampire Weekend, Contra

Vampire Weekend’s debut album was pretty damn good and forged the New York band’s penchant for a Central- and South-African-styled sound and funky, hipster-ish lyrics. But their second album quite possibly raised the bar for this young group. The album begins strong with “Horchata,” a song swelling with swells of strings, and though I’m not a huge fan of “White Sky,” it’s still a well-done song. “Holiday” has recently gotten some play in Kia commercials (but only a part of the song, and it’s become so incessant that I just want to gouge my eyeballs out Oedipus-style when I hear it now). The album finishes strong with songs like “Diplomat’s Son,” probably my third-favorite song on the album, and “Giving Up the Gun.”

Favorite song from the album: “Cousins”

As with most Vampire Weekend songs, the lyrics don’t make a whole great deal of sense here (“spilled kefir on your keffiyah,” though, takes the cake for Best/Worst Vampire Weekend lyrics, from the song “Campus”), but again, the song is, musically speaking, really great, especially Chris Tomson on drums and Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij on guitar. Simply put, it’s a lot of fun, much like the band itself on the whole.

4. Jamie Cullum, The Pursuit

I’ve already discussed Jamie Cullum’s album in detail, and you can read that post here.

Favorite song from the album: “If I Ruled the World”

My favorite song is, a bit unsurprisingly, not one of the great originals on the album, like “I’m All Over It” or “Mixtape,” or the so-awesome-it-made-Rihanna-sound-great cover of “Don’t Stop the Music,” but the understated cover of this standard. This song stuck with me – it was a break from both the tone of the original song, taking one of hope and happiness and making it wistful, providing a terrific dichotomy between the happy lyrics and the funeral-dirge-tempo music; and it was a break from Cullum’s usual style: instead of him usually performing with a smile on is face, at least auditorially (seems as though he largely can’t help it – one of the reasons I enjoy his music), it’s a darker side, at least to a degree.

3. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

I’ve noted that I’m Jewish, and thus I wasn’t ever ingrained in church music. However, I do have a minor enjoyment of gospel music, and I enjoy the old soul and Motown styles. Staples, as noted, does that with aplomb, with a little help from her band and producer/collaborator/Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy. It’s just so damn upbeat, with songs like “Don’t Knock,” and “I Belong to the Band,” such to the point that I’m even singing along with the Christian-based songs.

Favorite songs from the album: “You Are Not Alone” (above)/”Wrote a Song For Everyone”

“Wrote a Song For Everyone” is another cover, possibly the only secular cover song (most of these songs are traditional gospel songs), and it’s quite possible that Staples did it better than Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original. Again, like most of the album, it relies on Staples’ legendary voice, and works in tandem with some great electric guitar, creating a sound that’s quite simply terrific.

2. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Remember back up top, when I said that “The Suburbs,” “individually doesn’t match up with the message of the rest of” The Suburbs? Well, I thought the rest of The Suburbs matched up with the message of The Suburbs, not to mention the suburbs. (Confused yet?) The album tells a great narrative of life in the suburbs – life that Win and William Butler both experienced – and from the point of view of a born-and-raised quasi-surburbanite (though not entirely proud of it), that narrative and that emotion is true to life. It’s truly an album to be listened to from start to finish – from “The Suburbs” and “Ready to Start” to the “Sprawl” two parter and “We Used to Wait.”

Favorite songs from the album: “Modern Man”/”Rococo”

My two favorite songs appear in the beginning of the album, and they share virtually the same sentiment. “Modern Man,” with the lyrics “They say we’re the chosen few/but we’re wasted/and that’s why we’re still waiting,” actually has an upbeat sound, and “Rococo” is kind of fun, in spite of that being one of the words the “modern kids” say but don’t understand, because it’s largely just the band singing “rococo!” again and again, which is sort of fun. (Sort of detracts from the message of “they build it up just to burn it back down” – the near-constant sprawl of the suburbs – but still, it’s fun.)

1. Janelle Monáe, ArchAndroid

Monáe’s album is a narrative, conceptual album, as previously stated, being the second and third suites of the Metropolis epic she is spreading across three albums, The Chase, ArchAndroid, and her upcoming album; in that respect, it’s similar to The Suburbs. But it differs in one major front: Monáe is able to string together song after song, in a variety of styles and sounds, to truly create the “emotion picture” – the kind of album that you have to listen to from start to finish, the kind of album that sounds like how an action thriller would look – with elements of songs on the album weaved into others, as if she were sampling from herself. It begins with the overture from Suite II, which provides the basis for most of both the emotions and soundscapes of the next 17 tracks on this epic album (along with the distorted voices of Monáe herself, from the chorus of “57821,” which doesn’t appear until the end of the album, and was something I didn’t realize until I had listened to the album for the third time). The next three tracks, “Dance or Die,” “Faster,” and “Locked Inside,” have a similar tempo and hip-hop style (though “Faster” has an older, almost swing-esque style), but after that, things start to get a little weird. “Sir Greendown” has a swaying quality to it, to the point where I sway whenever I listen to it (even on the train and bus, which looks a little weird but I never really care), followed by the powerful, aforementioned “Cold War” and the bouncy “Tightrope,” followed by “Neon Gumbo” (which is played backwards and seems to match up with the ending of “Many Moons,” from The Chase). We then get to a bit of punk-rock with “Come Alive,” and a bit of electronica with “Mushrooms and Roses,” followed by the Suite III overture (featuring distortion of the end of “Oh, Maker”, which I’ll describe in a moment), the R&B-styled “Neon Valley Street”, almost J-Pop-esque “Wondaland,” and “57821” (which I’ll get to in a moment). The album ends with the old-school sounds of “Say You’ll Go” and “BaBopBye Ya,” the latter of which has sort of a big-band, Billie Holliday sort of sound to it. The one song that doesn’t fit: “Make the Bus,” which features too much of song collaborator Of Montreal and not enough of Monáe.

I’ll say it: in ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe channels David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Billie Holliday, and more, almost flawlessly  making for what should be an unforgettable album.

Favorite songs from the album: “Oh Maker”/”57821”

“Oh, Maker” sounds like it has notes of polka in it – it just has that sound, which is cool – and features Monáe’s 2700s android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, asking her “maker” about love (or at least that’s what I’ve gleaned from the lyrics).  “57821” sounds almost like Simon & Garfunkel meets “The Saga Begins,” and brings together the characters of Greendown and Mayweather, making for not only a great song but a great end to this part of the story.

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4 thoughts on “Required Listenings Top 5: Songs and Albums of 2010

  1. Pingback: Music Monday: Songs for an Elevated Train | Daniel Pecoraro's Random Musings and Trivia.

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