20 Essential Tracks of 2010

No matter how you slice it, 2010 was a big year if you were into pop, folk, dance, rap, and on and on. Basically, any genre you could throw a stick at would be able to throw a great tune right back atcha. In this column, we'll give you a taste of some of this year's most palatable offerings, from the buzz-rock of the Dum Dum Girls to the undefinable Bobby McFerrin.

20. The Gaslight Anthem: "Bring It On"

These New Jersey rockers are often compared to Bruce Springsteen, and there are some similarities: In addition to hailing from The Garden State, both write anthems about working class hardships and desperate love. Musically, however, "Bring It On" is more like an emo-informed combination of Social Distortion's punk-tinged rock 'n' roll and the tuneful bar-band growl of The Replacements. It's when gruff-voiced Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon sings to his "baby" that The Boss in him shines through.

19. Aloe Blacc: "I Need a Dollar"

This titular phrase is one generally associated with beggars or ill-mannered kids. There days, it is also the ballad of former McMansion owners now living in tents. Retro-soul cut "I Need a Dollar" is the first of four entries on this list inspired by The Great Recession. In this piano-bass-'n'-beat track, Aloe Blacc sings with measured desperation about falling on hard times. "I Need a Dollar" has the Pro-Tools gospel sound of Moby's Play album. Instead of samples, though, this is the real deal.

18. Joanna Newsom: "Soft as Chalk"

The former freak-folkie transitioned to versatile, mature singer-songwriter on her 2010 triple-album, Have One on Me. On "Soft as Chalk," the killer harpist switches very effectively to piano, singing beautifully of love's vicissitudes. The music evokes a composerly view of Americana, matching jazzy phrases with pastoral motifs, recalling Charles Mingus-influenced Joni Mitchell by way of Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland.

17. Laurie Anderson: "Only an Expert"

This art-pop pioneer won't be dedicating "O Superman" to anyone in the financial sector. As she makes clear in "Only an Expert," Laurie Anderson thinks that the players involved in our current economic downturn are a bunch of idiots. On this most raucous track from her wondrous Homeland album, hubby Lou Reed adds pissed-off guitar graffiti to Anderson's beat-heavy condemnation of the self-perpetuating cycle of problems that are created – and supposedly solved – by so-called experts.

16. Bobby McFerrin: "Wailers"

Want to hear the year's best entry for jazz, world, and classical all at the same time? Singer and musical polymath Bobby McFerrin recorded 10,000 improvised vocal tracks and then arranged them to create the deeply soulful and beautiful music of VOCAbuLarieS. Its best number, "Wailers," begins as an African chant, slows into a choral work, and then rises once more into gospel goodness. Don't worry, be blissed out.

15. Kelley Stoltz: "I Don't Get That"

The year's best power pop song comes from the little-known Kelley Stoltz. On this catchy mid-fi tune, he doesn't exactly reinvent the lyrical wheel. This is basic boy-girl frustration, but performed so melodically as to sound like a fresh idea. If you heard "I Don't Get That" out of context and mistook it for Raspberries or Badfinger, you'd be forgiven.

14. Ke$ha: "Your Love Is My Drug"

Though everything in your frontal lobe will tell you to ignore this teen pop single from a party girl brat with a freakin' dollar sign in her name, your limbic system will dictate otherwise. There's just no denying Ke$ha's basic magnetism at the microphone, nor the song's soaring chorus. And, while the central metaphor is obvious and shopworn, who hasn't experienced a love (or a crush, at least) that feels like a drug. The feeling is basic to human nature, just like dancing to a good beat. This song has that, too.

13. Ray Wylie Hubbard: "Down Home Country Blues"

This Texas singer-songwriter keeps getting better with age, as he proves here on "Down Home Country Blues," a swampy ode to music itself. Just one of many fine tunes from A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), this cut finds Hubbard moving ever further from his early, straightforward country roots, evoking a sinewy synthesis of folk, blues, and rock that'll leave a little grit in your grin.

12. Small Black: "Photojournalist"

Brooklyn quartet Small Black embody what's great about an otherwise over-hyped new hipster genre: chillwave. On "Photojournalist," interlacing beats mix handclaps with shuffling toms and a sturdy snare, while the band unfurl ebullient synth melodies that ebb and flow as they twinkle and gleam. Laconic vocals lie buried in the mix, whispering, "Rise up again like a ghost."

11. The Like: "I Can See It in Your Eyes"

In the year of the girl band revival, New York foursome The Like keep a cut above their L.A. peers by melding '60s garage rock to new wave pop. "I Can See It in Your Eyes" sounds like Blondie in a time-warm team-up with Them. A crisp beat, organ stabs, and skronky guitar lines are met head on by Elizabeth Berg's brassy, throaty alto, providing a thrilling ride toward love's bitter end.

10. Sia: "Stop Trying"

We Are Born, the latest album from Aussie adult-pop singer Sia, marks a step away from electro-lounge and toward mainstream indie rock (whatever that means). The LP is only a modest success, but "Stop Trying" is terrific and addictive. Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi adds gritty energy to a track already brimming with vibrancy, from the "You Can't Hurry Love" drums to the plunking, bouncing bass. The killer hook, though, is Sia herself, whose urgent and compelling vocals sell the song.

9. The Vaselines: "Sex With an X"

Formed in Scotland in the mid-'80s, lo-fi quartet The Vaselines put out two EPs and a single LP before disbanding in 1990. Twenty years later, the two singers and songwriters in the band – Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly – are reunited for Sex With an X. They've upgraded their DIY sound, but, as this brassy title track displays, The Vaselines haven't compromised their core aesthetic of catchy jangle-pop, rockabilly, and post-Velvets indie rock. The refrain of "It feels so good, it must be bad for me / Let's do it again" could apply to the song itself.

8. The Tallest Man on Earth: "King of Spain"

Along with indie pop, Scandinavians have long been fans of Americana. Thanks to Kristian Matsson, the United States now has to import the brand of folk music it once counted as a major export. Performing under the pseudonym The Tallest Man on Earth, Mattson is a stridently naked folky, strumming hard on his acoustic guitar and intoning his unreachable dreams with a scratchy and nasally voice. Sure, there's a passing resemblance to early Bob Dylan, but Mattson is too earnest and this tune too sweet for any comparison to stick.

7. Deerhunter: "Memory Boy"

Brandon Cox is rarely accused of writing pop songs, but that seems to be the direction his Deerhunter material is headed. On their excellent 2010 album, Halcyon Digest, "Memory Boy" is a ringing endorsement of the Atlanta indie band's gradual shift toward earworm confections. Instead of swirling, post-shoegazer guitar noise, this peppy little ditty is built on a Motown beat, staccato rhythms, and warmly ringing tones. Even Cox's typically defeated vocals offer a strong melodic hook.

6. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: "Money"

Another top song entry in this list's financial meltdown category, Sharon Jones belts out the line "Where have you gone?" as if her man had just left forever. Instead, "Money" has jilted our singer. In this era of backwards mobility, an unbalanced home budget can be scarier than loneliness. One way to cure the bank account blues is to listen to Jones and her funky, furious Dap-Kings as they unleash some old-school R&B on the problem. Top that, Bernanke.

5. Dum Dum Girls: "Jail La La"

Kristin Gundred's lo-fi girl band, Dum Dum Girls, are among the most promising new acts of 2010. While that may accurately be read as a compliment with caveats, the group's potential for future awesomeness is fully realized in "Jail La La," a noisy jolt of over-driven pop perfection. It seems our heroine has been thrown in the hoosegow, as she pleads, "Someone tell my baby / Or else he won't know I need saving." Okay, but first, let her sing just one more chorus.

4. LCD Soundsystem: "Drunk Girls"

Has James Murphy recorded an anthem for frat boys? On this deliriously toe-tapping cut, the man behind LCD Soundsystem never precisely spells out his views on the state of the inebriated female. Instead, he offers squelchy plastic soul à la mid-'70s David Bowie and Brian Eno, while throwing out tasty tidbits like, "Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut / It comes back but it's never the same."

3. The National: "Bloodbuzz Ohio"

"I still owe money to the money to the money I owe." In the last of this list's four theme songs for the Great Recession, Cincinnati indie quintet The National nod to the glum beauty of Tindersticks and the anthemic rock of U2, as Matt Berninger's weary baritone croaks out his Midwest malaise over a triumphal tom groove and syncopative piano chords.

2. Boston Spaceships: "Come on Baby Grace"

If you've grown tired of trying to keep up with the compulsively prolific Robert Pollard, here's a single serving of his finest from 2010. Over the past couple of years, Boston Spaceships have become Uncle Bob's best vehicle for the dissemination of his verbally esoteric indie rock tunes. "Come on Baby Grace" punches through brick walls with its Cheap trick-like blasts of rock riffage. Pollard's vocals, meanwhile, are more like a beery Roger Daltrey. In other words: yeah, this song rules.

1. Cee-Lo Green: "F**k You!"

The best song of the year, Cee-Lo Green's musically joyous tale of stinging rejection comes in a handful of forms. The original, not-ready-for-radio version, "F**k You!" lets loose with a vitriolic F-Bomb over gospel organ and backing girls who sing, "Ain't that some shit." The cleaned-up cut, "Forget You," is far from a compromise, emphasizing instead the wounded Cee-Lo who goes crying to his mom and dad in the song's hilarious bridge. Alternately, you can buy the import single, "FU," or check out the video of Green's appearance on The Colbert Report, in which the lyrics are amended as a diatribe against "Fox News." With a song as addictive as this, it's handy to have four flavors to savor.


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