Here I give to you my own personal selection of the 25 songs I enjoyed most in the last twelve months in no particular order other than the order I think they sound best in. I tried to keep it down to 20 songs, I tried really hard. Then I realised that I did 25 last year so there’s a legal precadent here. I’ve mostly steered clear of those “that was released last year” debatable tracks, although I included Sleigh Bells “Ring Ring” last year but I loved the new album version, “Rill Rill”, so much this year that I had to put it in.
(Artist names link to sites, track titles link to mp3s or streams.)
LCD Soundsystem – “Dance Yrself Clean”
The supposed last album from LCD Soundsystem isn’t as strong as I’d hoped, although some of the middle section has slowly grown on me. The standout tracks for me, from the very start, have been at either end. This opening track is a huge statement of intent that isn’t really followed up by the other tracks. A pitter-patter beat, rudimentary synth line and distant vocal introduction set a tense scene before the booming release that accompanies that thunderous synth break. From that point on, it’s a bona fide belter.
Yeasayer – “O.N.E.”
It would be near impossible to pick a single song to encapsulate the futuristic pick and mix of ODD BLOOD, but “O.N.E.” perfectly embodies the spirit of wild experimentation. It arrives like an unidentified flying object and immediately begins to wriggle its way into your world. A space-age dancefloor stormer like no other, the song is full of unpredictable twists & turns and a joyous mix of spacious synths and clattering drums.
Janelle Monae – “Tightrope (feat. Big Boi)”
We call that classy brass. The pop star of the year came to us from the future with tales of cyborgs and a cold war while busting serious moves like some sort of tap-dancing contortionist. “Tightrope” became her calling card and rightly so. It’s full of energy and it’s here that she delivers her idealistic future funk with all the pizazz of a generation-defining star. There’s very little you can do to resist this hasty, slick and slinky groove so just ignore all the Cindi Mayweather nonsense and enjoy the musical gifts she’s brought back from the year 2719.
The Tallest Man on Earth – “King of Spain”
When I listen to the bright clarity of this guitar line, I feel like I’m listening from inside the guitar itself. This one from The Tallest Man on Earth hits you quick from the start and takes you on a journey throughout Spanish society in the company of a brash foreigner. Lyrical references to Dylan compound the already inescapable comparisons between the two. On tracks like this, Kristian Mattson brings new meaning to the phrase “Dylan gone electric”.
The National – “Terrible Love (Alternate version)”
I’m not a fan of this idea of re-releasing successful albums with a few extra tracks as it’s generally an attempt to sap some extra money from die-hard fans. The expanded version of The National’s High Violet isn’t particularly outstanding either, but it does offer us this alternative version of “Terrible Love” in which the contrast has been upped considerably, providing new breathing space in the early parts and a far more powerul, frenetic ending.
James Blake – “Limit To Your Love”
Mr Blake’s brand of “post-dubstep” gained considerable plaudits late this year, but it was this cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” that brought his deep, electronic sound together with his fragile but soulful vocals to wondrous effect. Wisely released as a single, with a clever video added into the mix, it launched James Blake from being a name dropped by musos to being a genuine star in the making.
Villagers – “Twenty Seven Strangers”
Conor O’Brien began the first of Villagers’ two nights in Vicar Street with this song, which also featured as a b-side to lead single “Becoming A Jackal”. He clearly has some level of faith in the track and though it’s not the most immediately impressive song on the debut album, it’s a simple, elegant demonstration of what makes O’Brien such a special songwriter. It’s direct, indentifiable, real-world poetry of the finest variety.
Frightened Rabbit – “Living In Colour”
Frightened Rabbit’s transition from a band that made their name in scathingly bitter break-up songs to a band that made soaring, anthemic celebrations of rebirth and freedom. The stomping “Living In Colour” lends their latest album its title and its pounding sense of optimism. This is the sound of a band transformed successfully; valiantly journeying into new musical territory while maintaining the gritty edge of their past.
Sleigh Bells – “Rill Rill”
Why a band that specialise in creating as much squalling noise as possible from a guitar and a screaming frontwoman decided to create a song based on a sample of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That”, I’ll never know. But it works really, really well. A funky respite amidst the chaos, “Rill Rill” sounds boldly distorted in any normal circumstances. Sinister lyrics aside, the slow groove of the sample and the beefy drums made this my soundtrack to the happier moments of the last twelve months or so.
Cults – “Go Outside”
You know the deal: nobody really knows the deal. For the moment, I don’t really care about the personalities or back story to Cults, I’m quite happy with their EP and this spiffing tune. Atmospheric sounds full of distant sunshine and children’s voices set the laid back tone for this summery jam. Lazy, chanting vocals willing you to head outdoors and enjoy the weather? Might not work in this country, but it’s still a damn fine song.
Twin Sister – “All Around And Away We Go”
Twin Sister’s Color Your Life EP captures their sparse, melodic pop in all its forms. “All Around And Away We Go” is like a new breed of underwater funk. The whole thing sounds effortless but utterly infectious, with the breathy vocals and busy bass line combining to bring deep, dark funk out into the big, bright world where it breathes in a new lease of life.
The Besnard Lakes – “Albatross”
I suppose you’ve got to be either stupid or brave to name a song “Albatross”, but The Besnard Lakes do so correctly here with a song that is so grand and graceful that it requests such a title. The Canadian’s output can be patchy but when they get it right, they really do reach great heights. This song is the glorious peak of their most recent album Are The Roaring Night and it is most definitely worthy of your undivided attention.
Rubberbandits – “Song For Willie O’Dea”
Though the Limerick lads finally breached the national consciousness towards the end of 2010 with their attempted Christmas number one, “Horse Outside”, they’ve been dishing out comedy gold for a few years now. Mostly dealing with stereotypes of socially disadvantaged young males in modern Ireland, their clever hip hop reached new levels with a timely and remarkably witty tale of the woes of local TD and former Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea. It’s a quality hip-hop tune and the funniest thing I’ve heard all year.
Dan Mangan – “Robots”
This catchy number sounds like something written after a few beers and sung after a few packs of cigarettes. Self-confessed coffee junkie, Dan Mangan, writes clever acoustic songs delivered with a raspy, boisterous but likeable attitude. This is one of his most light-hearted efforts but the sing-along chorus makes it one of his most effective songs. Wherever we went at the Calgary Folk Music Festival in July, this song seemed to be sung on an endless loop by Mangan himself or dedicated fans.
The Morning Benders – “Excuses”
Though much of The Morning Bender’s album, Big Echo, lost its sparkle as thoughts of warm, sunny days by the beach receeded back into that dark corner we keep them in during the harsh Irish winter, some of its stronger tracks maintain part of the initial glow of pleasing wooziness. “Excuses” brings the sunshine in military fashion with marching beats and precisely sweeping strings. The vocal harmonies, tinged with fond reminiscence of playful days, carry the weight of memory and the success of this band with them.
Best Coast – “Boyfriend”
Normally, I don’t go in for the ’90s alt-rock nostalgia buzz and I have very little time for “surf”-anything but with Best Coast’s combination of sturdy, slightly grungey guitars and Bethany’s reverbed howl they’ve hit upon something that works on plenty of other levels. The simplicity of the lyrics are key to the effectiveness of the song as her direct delivery pierces the wall of retro-sound.
Gorillaz – “Empire Ants (feat. Little Dragon)”
A slow builder that doesn’t actually build to much at all, this track tipifies the kind of confidently laid back music that Gorillaz have delivered on their latest album. “Empire Ants” moves slowly through its phases with layers of keys and synths falling into place from above to create a solid base for Little Dragon’s contribution. It’s careful, considered electro-funk. It’s never going to knock you out of your chair, but Gorillaz have realised that they don’t have to try to do that anymore.
Kanye West – “Monster”
What the hell do you say about this one? “Monster” discards much of the claustrophobic, layered production that makes the rest of the album sound so all-encompassing, but this is no easy, breezey ride with Yeezy. A steady and sinister beat bounces around like a rubber bullet looking for a victim while Kanye tells the world what they already knew. He’s a monster, he says, but he figures he’d be best bringing some of his monster mates along, with Jay-Z rapping about blood-sucking and Nicki Minaj proving to be scarier than both guys combined with a terrifying display in verbal dexterity that steals the show.
Broken Social Scene – “Sweetest Kill”
Ask anyone, myself included, what Broken Social Scene do best and they’ll most likely answer with words like huge, anthemic, bombastic and rock. While their new album contained plenty of this usual BSS stuff, it also had a good helping of all that other stuff the massive collective are good at. “Sweetest Kill” demonstrates their ability to craft a more gentle approach which allows their many members to contribute little subtleties that combine to create something truly special.
Beach House – “Walk In The Park”
The warm, comforting sound of Beach House may well come to be the defining sound of 2010 for many people and the cosy wonder of this track will surely bring back fond memories in the future. The thin-as-crepe-paper drum machine beat and punctuated organ allow the rest of the song to build around it, with the arrival of the screeching guitar line heralding the chorus which reaches for the clouds. Even by her own high standards, this is possibly the best vocal performance by Victoria Legrand on an impeccable album.
Zola Jesus – “Sea Talk”
Creeping in from a similar vocal territory as Beach House’s Legrand, the girl with a name like an over-zealous Chelsea fan arrived with her own take on the kind of haunting music that is likely to remind you of Fever Ray and this year’s most ubiquitous marketing campaign, iamamiwhoami. Her deep vocals sound like they were recorded inside a dream (or a nightmare) but there is an earthy feel to the instrumentation. Though there is a cold atmosphere to the whole thing, it feels like the determined last stand of a desperate person lost in a storm.
Penny Hill – “Salem”
Of all the stuff that arrives into my inbox, very little of it makes it to my ears at all, never mind repeated listens. Penny Hill has quietly earned her place among my favourite songs of the year with a song that has pestered me for much of the past 12 months. This folky tune has demanded that I listen to it throughout the seasons. Her sweet and sour voice delivers a lyrical call to arms over a bare, nylon string riff before it all comes apart amidst crumbling piano lines.
Cathy Davey – “Bad Weather”
While “Little Red” is the undoubted pop success from Davey’s wonderful third album, there is a clutch of other phenomenal songs there that are good enough to win over the most stubborn of doubters. “Bad Weather”, aside from being a lush, elegant ballad of the highest order, is a song that has been on my mind continuously since I first heard it and not just because of its topical nature. This is Cathy Davey at her very best, carving beautiful new songs that are utterly unique from the casts of tried and tested moulds.
Kendal Johansson – “Blue Moon”
I won’t pretend I know much at all about Big Star or Alex Chilton but when this cover of Big Star’s “Blue Moon” surfaced around the time of Chilton’s death in March, I was quite reasonably blown away. Kendal Johansson is someone I know even less about than Chilton, but this recording and that vocal is something that has stuck with me all year. This is the sound of every tear of every actor in every weepy movie suddenly pouring off the screen and flooding the cinema. And somehow it’s all over in less than 3 minutes, which is the biggest shame.
Joanna Newsom – “Good Intentions Paving Company”
Joanna Newsom returned from the wilderness this year with more music than you could shake a harp at and amongst her triple disc release, Have One On Me, one could sense that she was once again ready to deliver simple songs as well as material of similar scope to her previous album, Ys. One of the most pleasing changes was hearing Newsom develop a soulful new style that came across in tracks like this. Here Newsom delivers a relaxed, comfortable take on a 1970s style folk-soul ballad with aplomb.
I’ve also included a handy Spotify playlist of the above. For those of you on Spotify, it’s handy for listening to. For those of you that aren’t, it’s a handy reminder why you should be.