January 2, 2011

A (mostly) uninformed listening of the top 50 singles of 2010: 1–10

And we come to the end. I was quite able to finish this before 2011, but January 2: Close enough. To recap: I realized that I was familiar with almost none of the top hit songs of 2010, so I decided to listen to every entry on Rolling Stone's list of the top 50 singles of the year and review them here. After covering 41–50, 31–40, 21–30 and 11–20, it ends here: the top ten. Enjoy.

10. "Monster" -- Kanye West feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver

Well, this is educational: Most of the year’s buzziest musicians, together in one song. Now that I’ve made it through the first 40 entries on the list, I’ve developed more formed opinions of the players here: Kanye is interestingly innovative, Rick Ross relies on the same old crass rap clichés, Nicki Minaj doth protest too much. Jay-Z I was already familiar with, and not really interested in, and…wait, isn’t Bon Iver some kind of indie-folk bearded dude?

There’s not a lot here for me: “Monster” beats you over the head with the same rhythm again and again, failing to show much of what makes Kanye special. But I am warming up to Minaj a little; her verses show way more playfulness and personality than I got from her own songs, as she flips through a cavalcade of characters, going some way to justify the hype. Bon Iver, meanwhile, floats in from out of nowhere, not nearly as incongruous a presence as you’d expect, but his verses are the opposite of exciting. This song is pretty weird, but not interestingly so.

9. “The Ghost Inside” – Broken Bells

I was aware of Broken Bells as one of the many rock-rap hybrid projects staking a claim on the musical landscape—producer Danger Mouse (I found The Gray Album clever but annoying) and James Mercer, from the good-but-overrated rock band the Shins. And here we are.

This song is dreadfully boring. Absolutely nothing of any interest happens here: It’s pretty, I suppose, and Mercer has a great voice, but by the time it appears near the end of the song, you’ve been rendered completely somnambulant by a deadeningly repetitive melody and falsetto whining (or is that Mercer doing the falsetto? Can’t tell). Rolling Stone describes the song as “noirish,” but they’re forgetting that good film noir is exciting.

This leads me to a general point about much “rock” music these days: It doesn’t rock. It fails to excite or get the blood racing; it doesn’t even seem to try. There’s talent here, sure, and musical creativity, but there’s also a complete abdication of rock’s noble calling to fire up the emotions. Too many songs on this list fall into this category, which makes me wonder what musical genre they’re supposed to belong to.

8. “Tightrope” – Janelle Monae ft. Big Boi

From what I gather, Janelle Monae is a one-of-a-kind musical character, and this song shows a hell of a lot of sass, personality, and talent. But the song—a not unpleasant stew of classic soul sound and glitchy rhythms—fails her. It’s yet another good idea that doesn’t manage to live up to its ambitions (though Big Boi’s contribution is spot-on and fits in perfectly). I think critics praise it because they know they’re supposed to, but I doubt too many of them listening to it voluntarily more than, say, three times.

7. “White Sky” – Vampire Weekend

Again, I’m supposedly a fan of Vampire Weekend (their first album grabbed me back in ’08 and refused to let go for a couple of months), but I had only the vaguest memory of having heard this song when the new VW album, Contra, came out last January. And it’s…pretty forgettable. That trademark unique indie-rock/Afropop mélange that Vampire Weekend does so well is in full effect, but they only manage to feint and parry at the edges of the song, never building it beyond the its basis as just a good idea. An example of a band buying its own hype on its second album and failing to put in the requisite effort? What do I know, I don’t even listen to albums by my favorite bands.

6. “You Are Not Alone” – Mavis Staples

Another R&B survivor, coming back with an inspirational hymn, written by Jeff Tweedy of the criminally overhyped Wilco. This is a pleasant song with a warmhearted message, but Staples—71 years old and best known for this best known from this—doesn’t have the voice she once did.

5. “We Used to Wait” – Arcade Fire

A personal note about last year: I had a blind date over the summer with a woman who was an ardent geek for Arcade Fire, talking eagerly about their upcoming concert in town. I tend to be foolishly honest when meeting new people, so when she asked me what I thought of the band, I had to work hard to not tell her how I found the band to be a huge waste of rock & roll potential (such a refreshingly majestic sound, such boring, boring songs). I think I did all right—I got a second date, though not a third—but listening to this song again reminds me that we were probably doomed from the start. I want to like Arcade Fire, I really do (if only to be a proud former Montrealer), and this song is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. But how many times do I have to say it—a good idea does not make a good song. This track just refuses to go anywhere.

4. “Teenage Dream” – Katy Perry

Please…make the ear-bleeding stop! Seriously, how can any adult really think this is a good song? I don’t care what the pedigree is of the studio wizards twiddling the knobs here, Katy Perry isn’t just untalented, she pretty much sucks the talent out of a room. Completely bubbleheaded lyrics and amateurish delivery and…and…and…arrrggh! This song makes me want to commit genocide.

3. “Soldier of Love” – Sade

Wow. Just last night, I was looking at the list of past winners of the Grammy for Best New Artist, marveling how few still have careers, and not including Sade on that list (it ranges from the Beatles to Milli Vanilli). But what do you know, the 1986 winner came back strong this year. The martial beat is a little predictable, but this woman’s deep croon is still beautiful and sexy, and the electro-lined backing adds a great texture below the melody. Too bad it grows boring after a couple minutes.

2. “Fuck You” – Cee Lo Green

Here it is, the single song in the top 50 that I actually purchased this year. I found the initial hype for this song suffocating, refusing to believe that anyone would care if the title weren’t something as bluntly provocative as “Fuck You,” but then I gave it a listen. I like this song a lot: The perfect mix of throwback soul fetishization and newfangled polish, with some nifty lyrical metaphors (“I guess he’s an Xbox, and I’m more Atari”). It’s not one of the great songs of the ages—the title really does come off as a gimmick—but it’s a whole lot of fun, topped off by a jubilant vocal performance by Cee Lo, clearly a consummate performer. It’s even earned a place on the latest entry in my epic mix-CD series, Track 3 on volume 60, between Black Flag’s “Rise Above” and Tom Petty’s “Down South” (believe it).

1. “Runaway” – Kanye West ft. Pusha T.

Aw. I was hoping it was a cover of Del Shannon (or Bon Jovi). Oh, Kanye—you are our beacon; where you go, our culture will follow. This weird, spooky song gets under your skin, with its repetitively genius piano figure (I’m also partial to any song whose first word is “and”). One demerit for hanging its chorus on the obnoxiously clichéd term “douche bags,” but otherwise, this is a respectable choice for the best song in a year of mediocre music.

So I am now fully educated in the year in music. Well then. I’m not sure what to make of this—I really didn’t like most of these songs, and very, very few of them would I consider actually purchasing. Even something like Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” which I really enjoyed, isn’t commanding me to spin it again and again, like any of my 10,000 favorite songs can do with bewitching effectiveness. I entered this endeavor with an open mind, but the project pretty much confirmed my opinion that modern pop music just doesn’t speak to me anymore. My tastes have aged out of relevance, and I need to make my peace with that. I suppose that’s not so bad; there’s always another 1960s garage-rock band to discover.

By the way, my personal pick for song of the year—nowhere to be found on this list—is embedded below. I can’t be completely over the hill if something like this still gets my heart racing: