For the second year in a row, we polled everyone at The Factual Opinion headquarters to determine the top fifty songs of the year. It was a three-part process: Each participant nominated his or her favorite songs from 2010; Tucker and I sifted through the nominees to come up with a short list of potential candidates; then, we voted. Each participant submitted a ranked list of up to fifty favorites—which were not necessarily limited to the short list—and the results were tallied according to both the total number of votes a song received, and their placement on individual ballots. The results range from UK-garage-influenced pop to skeevy basement electro to frenetic psych rock—and that’s just in the first three entries. The list reflects an equal mix of personal favorites and monolithic singles (and sometimes voters didn’t even know which was which—one participant voted for Cee Lo’s “Fuck You!” thinking that it was an undiscovered gem.) Ultimately, it’s a fair and idiosyncratic overview of 2010—which was, incidentally, a killer year for music. Please enjoy. -MB
10. The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
When last we heard from The National on last year’s Dark was the Night compilation, they were never leaving New York because their girlfriend was a depressed, high-maintenance head-case. That’ll happen. On “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” we now find our favorite semi-detached (but not apathetic, mind you) urban white guys meditating on what happens to personal constructs of home when find that you may never leave New York (or wherever you ended up, unless you ended up in LA, in which case, keep f***ing that chicken). The lyrics speak to taking things too far in a moment of melodrama (nicely euphemized as a “bloodbuzz”), and the instrumentation subtly builds to match the inflated sincerity of the moment. It’s an overly sentimental thought process, but one that everyone who’s ever left home has gone through (as a case in point, see also 2010 TFO candidates “Georgia” from Cee-Lo Green and “New York is Killing Me” from Gil Scott-Heron). However, The National’s take on the theme is a stand-out amongst stand-outs. Nobody, and I mean nobody, mixes mopey-ness, romantic idealism, conceptual loss, reckoning, anxiety, and acceptance in a way that I and people like me can relate to—to the rest of you, go play that Animal Collective song about being content with girlfriends some more, because that’s pretty much what everybody else listens to, right? -JW
9. Broken Social Scene – “All to All”
When Roger Waters sang about the Bleeding Hearts and Artists making their stand for the soul musician at the end of The Wall, I’m sure that in his vision of jaded hippies making layered, watercolor “call of forgiveness” meditations, the music sucked. Worm your Honour, as a counterpoint, I give you the Broken Social Scene. Apparently you just had to let those hippies simmer for 40 years and get really, really jaded, let them do a few dry runs with rocking bummer songs about lovers’ spit, 17 year-old-girl disappointments, and how it won’t be what you want it to be (oh no!). Then, boom, you get “All to All,” a polished, beautiful rock n’ roll soundscape that contemplates how we relate to one another after we hurt one another (and possibly attack one another’s core values?). More impressive, the song does this without ever getting its pulse rate up above walking a dog in the park. Which raises the question – can music be subversive when it’s simultaneously the most pleasant music you’ll ever hear in a coffee shop? In any case, score another one for the Bleeding Hearts and Artists, put this baby on repeat, and ENJOY your coffee—Lord knows you’ve earned it after beating your heart out against some mad bugger’s wall all week. -JW
8. Sleigh Bells – “Rill Rill”
Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill” fucking rocks me and makes me think of an alternate high school universe where I get into fist fights with my best friends in the bathroom over math scores and then we make up over milkshakes in the parking lot of Jack in the Box and then we all make out on the hood of my car with whoever. Like every week. Essentially, feeling like a sensitive badass because I’m awesome and you’re awesome and life is weird but somehow we’ll make it through all right as long as we keep trying. The positive defiance and encouragement in the lyrics matched with soothing echoes, booms, clicks and strums make everything seem possible. So high five, bitches, and see you on the quad. -SE
7. Big Boi – “Shutterbug (Feat. Cutty)”
Big Boi’s “Shutterbugg” has been sitting around for a while; it’s old enough to have a Scott Storch coproduction credit on it. Not that it matters, as it’s the kind of banger that could have come out of Big Boi at any point in the last decade, and in good competition for the best of those. “I keep it player while some choose to play it safe” is boilerplate boasting that’s actually backed up with Big Boi’s position in rap right now. What else is he talking about? Not fucking with Mexican drug money? Shooting a guy in self defense? Being the center of attention at a club? No, it’s “Must be the way the verse is sounding/ came up on the Geto Boys and the Underground Kingz.” It is a situation where it really doesn’t matter—Guru was right, it’s mostly the voice, and Big Boi’s locked into this beat so well that what he’s saying is secondary at best. The track is a monster, and given to anyone else, it wouldn’t be. -SW
6. Kanye West – “Runaway (Feat. Pusha-T)”
It's difficult to write about Mr. West's music without also writing about Mr. West himself. We're never going to be able to know how we might react to music like this if the artist were an unknown recluse. So let's put all our cards on the table: I never used to like Kanye specifically because I thought Kanye was a moron. "Gold-digger"? Bitch, please. I thought his first three albums were sick fluff, perhaps one step above the Black Eyed Peas on the evolutionary ladder but only just. Then he went nuts—see, here we go with the ad hominem criticism—and suddenly I got interested. 808s & Heartbreak was as crazy and riveting a left turn as we've seen any multiplatinum pop star deliver since, well . . . I dunno, Slow Train Coming? "Runaway" picks up on the best bits of 808s, folding that album's melancholy introspection into something that can fairly be called epic while still remaining brutal in its commitment to raw self-laceration. Of course, there's something selfish about that, too—even when he's apologizing, and seemingly sincere in his attempts to be a better person, it's still all about him. (That he managed to hijack both Taylor Swift's recent album launch and the publicity tour for George W. Bush's presidential memoir without even really trying—transforming both events into de facto referendums on Kanye—is simply astounding.) But you also get something on "Runaway" that you might not expect: he finally seems to understand just how toxic his own self-regard actually is. I almost feel bad for Pusha T, basically drafted for the purpose of playing Kanye's monstrous id, one last glimpse of the type of womanizing cad-demon Mr. West is explicitly trying to exorcise. And just when you think it's over, when the strings have swollen as high as they can rise, we hear the coda: three minutes of beautiful noise, with orchestral accents placed opposite a synthesizer solo that reveals itself, towards the end, to be just Kanye's voice run through an overloaded vocodor. He keeps on talking, but at some point it just becomes noise. "Runaway" gives the listener some hope that Mr. West might actually be—gasp!—growing up. -TO
5. Cee Lo Green – “Fuck You!”
With something like 25 Grammy nominations, live performance on nearly every day and night talk show, and Gwyneth Paltrow brining it to the masses on Glee, do you really need (or even want) my review of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You!”? It’s certainly not necessary. I’ll just say that in this song, Cee Lo perfectly crystallizes the self-righteous, joyful fun in releasing all those shitty feelings you’re feeling and telling someone to fuck off. Now, if only we could all have jammin’ keys, a bouncing backbeat, hallelujah harmonies and an ebullient horn section backing us up when we did it, we would ALL be better off. -NS
4. Gil Scott-Heron – “New York is Killing Me”
“New York is Killing Me” is everything and nothing all at once. The beat is sparse, with a deep drum coming in over some rapid fire snaps and a brief acoustic guitar, but it's incredible. Gil Scott-Heron is from an older tradition than rap, but tell me that this beat doesn't sound like a descendent of The Neptunes' sublime "Grindin." Throw Gil Scott's gravelly, aged voice on top of it and you've got something that sits in the blues range. And when the backing vocals come in for "Lord have mercy on me," and you're looking at gospel. The positively mournful "I need to be back home" toward the end? That's soul. Add in the entire point of the song, which is that the city is an unfriendly, cruel place and sometimes you've gotta return to the country, and you've got a song that's black history spread over the course of four minutes and thirty seconds. -DB
3. Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope (Feat. Big Boi)”
Janelle Monáe is the pansexual future of music; she strides confidently in a territory between male and female, singing in a gorgeously feminine voice while wearing masculine suits and sporting a weird pompadour that doesn’t really belong on either side of the gender divide. She embraces the whole history of music as well, combining jazzy orchestra and solid pop with a hip-hop swagger and rhythm; it’s exciting and liberating to listen to her perform, and even more so to watch, as in her appearance on David Letterman in which she seemed to channel James Brown. As “Tightrope” speaks of, she really does seem to be walking a tightrope between several genres, but she’s doing so confidently, striding above everyone else out there and redefining the entire scene as she does so. This is the future, and if Monáe is any indication, it’s going to sound amazing. -MJB
2. LCD Soundsystem – “All I Want”
It's a difficult task that James Murphy took on this time around. Besides punching in the David Bowie weight class—a challenge that Ryan Dombal expertly addresses here--the lyrics to "All I Want" are decidedly hard to get behind. Opening with that same cleaned-up warble that's come to rest on a listener's ear like a Sunday comforter, seemingly addressing the sorts of shared sorrow that had come forth so beautifully in "New York You're Bringing Me Down" or the our-sincerity-now anthem "All My Friends", things take a crueler tone, veering dangerously towards the sort of bitterness that makes it hard to come aboard.
But it's still Murphy. You trust him at this point, and you'll ride with him now, and if this is how he says goodbye—asking for your pity, asking for your tears—that'll have to do. And yet, as this seven minute trek through repeated guitars and beeping birdcalls winds to close, he sinks deep, buried behind his own walls of sound, his own vocals receding for some tuneless vocal exercises—you hear the last, it's there, and there again. "Take me home", he says. It doesn't sound like resignation, and it doesn't track as bitter, either.
That's because it's neither. It's hope, as off-putting as that might seem, as sentimental as that might taste. It's where he's ended up, where any artist hopes to--the tail end of completion, when the show's closed down and the scripts are filed away. Freedom's exhilaration awaits. –TS
1. Kanye West – “Monster (Feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver, & Nicki Minaj)”
“Monster,” like most of the material he released this year, is loosely based around Kanye West’s acceptance that the world views him as a bad guy. Sure, it’s easy to discount his vilification at the hands of all the people who think an MTV Video Award, like, means something. But don’t forget: West is a pop star that got called a jackass by the President of the United States for simply helping to increase ratings on a TV show. That has to fucking sting. For creating a spectacle—something MTV actively encourages—dude was bombarded with hate-tweets and other responses that turned an entertainment issue into a racial, social, political issue.
Like “Power” and “Runaway,” the other lead singles from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Monster” takes the jackass charge head on—You think I’m a monster? You’re goddamn right I am—then proceeds to belittle the hell out of it. When Jay-Z equates himself, and West by proxy, with a laundry list of classic creatures (“Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness, goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience”), he nails the song’s dichotomy: these are all purportedly fearsome beings that are all patently ridiculous. When Jay follows up with, “Everybody want to know what my Achilles heel is,” his voice strikes the precise balance between self-confidence and self-awareness as he reveals it: “LOOOVE.” Zombie needs a hug.
You can actually hear Kanye rebuilding his own confidence over the course of his verse. At first, he’s reticent—backing off from the mike, slurring his words, losing some punch lines—but by mid-verse, he’s doing Napoleon Dynamite impressions and screaming, “Put the pussy in a sarcophagus!” In the chorus, when he demands, “I’ma need to see your fuckin’ hands at the concert,” it’s pointed at the same people who demonized him.
Unlike “Power” and “Runaway,” “Monster” is far from compositionally perfect. Kanye is a notoriously immaculate producer, but—especially compared with most of his other work—“Monster” is a thorny, slippery mess. Bon Iver bookends the song with some vague Autotuned nonsense about crossing the line, letting God decide, and going home—it sounds like West, again by proxy, apologizing for his behavior while conveniently leaving out an actual apology. Rick Ross makes a brief, four bar appearance, basically just to introduce Kanye. The chorus appears where the verses should be. Yet, Kanye’s embrace of villainy resonates because both he and “Monster” share a willingness to be ugly. For once, his production is less about craft than impact.
In this case, the impact comes from Nicki Minaj, who delivers the biggest, star-making, song-closing verse since Busta Rhymes in “Scenario.” Kanye and Jay-Z spend their time ratcheting up the tension; Nicki explodes it. She growls, screams, uses a fake patois, furiously switches rhythms, bends word sounds to her will, brags about her Barbie doll, and generally brings the song home. Kanye, for his part, knows exactly what to do with her. He chops up her vocal so that it sounds like every line is coming from a different spot. As soon as she starts rapping, the music drops out—there’s more than enough musicality in her voice to sustain the song—and Kanye twists the drum track around her patterns. It’s Nicki’s moment, but Kanye deftly uses her as a vessel for his own comeback.
That’s the other thing that makes “Monster” special: it’s a pivot point for Kanye’s return, on his own terms. In a moment when Kanye is supposed to crave redemption, he chooses to remain polarizing. Make no mistake: out in the world, his audacity gets him some love, but it gets him hate, too. On Thanksgiving day, the week that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received near-universal critical adulation and sold half-a-million copies, Kanye performed on top of a float somewhere near Times Square, as tourists and New Yorkers chanted “Taylor” and yelled, “You’re an asshole.” That’s exactly the kind of animosity that “Monster” takes on the nose. He’s still getting booed at the Macy’s Day Parade by “post-racist” America; he’s still gonna need to see your fucking hands at the concert. –MB
By Matthew J. Brady, David Brothers, Marty Brown, Sarah Engelman, Tim O’Neil, Nina Stone, Tucker Stone, Sean Witzke, and Josh Woodbeck, 2010