As a music nerd and a fan of statistics, I love Last.fm, the social networking site that uses downloadable software to keep track of every single song you listen to on your computer and MP3 player, and lets you follow your own personal music charts. That takes the guesswork out of choosing a list of music favorites—it's all right there in cold numbers.
One might also say that takes the fun out of it, so below I've created two annotated lists of my favorite 2010 music, both arranged not in order of preference but as playlists that flow well (I've tested them), so you can follow along at home. The first list comprises my favorite songs released in 2010, Last.fm be damned. The second list contains the 20 songs that Last.fm tells me I actually listened to most often in 2010; I've excluded 2010 releases from that list, since many of them appear in the first list.
2010 Favorites, part one: 2010 releases
Sleigh Bells at the Triple Rock; photo by Meredith Westin
Sleigh Bells, "A/B Machines"
After months of health struggles, my 90-year-old grandmother died peacefully in her sleep on the morning of October 25, and that night I biked through a cold rain to see Sleigh Bells at the Triple Rock. When I would tell her about my busy life, Grandma used to shake her head, smile, and say, "We are all at different places in our lives." That night, Grandma was at peace, and so was I. (Read the blog entry I wrote about my grandmother here, and my review of the Sleigh Bells show—with photos by Meredith Westin—here.)
Kate Nash, "Do-Wah-Doo"
I really loved Kate Nash's debut album Made of Bricks, and the first time I heard this single from her 2010 follow-up My Best Friend Is You, I jumped up and made my friend have a dance party with me right there on the spot. Nash squeezes a studioful of of fantastic things into a two-and-a-half-minute song—a surf guitar riff, handclaps, pounding piano, Wall-of-Sound drums, a perfect melody, an explosive chorus—and they all pile up higher and higher into a thunderous ecstasy, which Nash ends abruptly with the song's final word, the one word that earned the song an explicit label on iTunes. This is one of my favorite songs, by anyone, ever.
Gayngs, "Faded High"
Thanks to the steady hand of producer Ryan Olson, the biggest Minnesota music supergroup ever to be assembled sounded nothing like a supergroup and everything like cutting-edge Minnesota music: adventurous, evocative, richly textured, and surging. The whole Gayngs adventure, from the acclaimed album Relayted to the Last Prom on Earth release party, miraculously added up to more than the sum of its parts. The fact that many dismissed the album as empty 70s revivalism and the show as a stupid in-joke made Gayngs feel like an open secret. More than any other single track on this list, for me and for many other Minneapolis music fans, this was what 2010 sounded like.
Taio Cruz, "Dynamite"
New York Times critic Jon Pareles cites this song in a cranky essay decrying the brainlessness of current pop music—Gayngs are also a target, as are Best Coast and other indie bands that are supposedly "dumbing down." Whatever. Music can do lots of things, and one thing it can do is to make people feel like it's okay to have some goddamn fun. If Pareles wants to chuck this "inane" number in the trash bin, he can toss Kool & the Gang and the Isley Brothers in there too. I'll Dumpster-dive for the whole collection, in my tuxedo.
Jenny O., "Well OK Honey"
After recording an entire unreleased LP that's under wraps in the custody of her former label, L.A. artist Jenny O. self-produced the charming EP Home. Jenny O. represents the spirit of 1970s singer-songwriters—for her own year-end list, she chose the best songs of 1971—and this number suavely cops a groove from Stealers Wheel. I like the line, "Oh sugar, I'm too young for you/ Not like my number, but in everything I do." (Read my interview with Jenny O. here.)
Stars at First Avenue; photo by Meredith Westin
I was bummed by Stars' overblown show at First Ave—I missed Gorillaz for that!—because their album The Five Ghosts is great, their best since their 2004 breakthrough Set Yourself On Fire.
Robyn, "Dancing On My Own"
Robyn at the Fine Line: Another show I shouldn't have missed.
Mumford & Sons, "Little Lion Man"
Mumford & Sons spread through the Twin Cities this year like kudzu—it wasn't a question of if you'd fall for them, but when. This growlingly anthemic song encapsulates the irresistible electricity they demonstrated at First Ave, even when their actual electricity shorted out. This song will always remind me of the great friends I made in 2010; they tried to teach me to love both Mumford & Sons and Dawes, and half-succeeded.
MAYA disappointed almost everyone, but the amazing Kala was an almost impossible act to follow. I like this album a lot, and in particular the spare, glitchy spirit of this song, which reminds me of the artist's spunky debut album.
Marina and the Diamonds, "Hollywood"
I can thank Last.fm for recommending that I check out Marina and the Diamonds—good call, algorithms. I couldn't stop listening to Marina's debut album The Family Jewels, and her Triple Rock show in September was crazy fun.
Marina and the Diamonds at the Triple Rock; photo by Meredith Westin
Kanye West with Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Bon Iver, "Monster"
City Pages music editor Andrea Swensson chose Ryan Olson as the local music artist of the year, and I can't argue with that choice—but if you count Eau Claire's Justin Vernon as "local," he'd have to be the runner-up, taking a leading role in Gayngs and then jetting out to collaborate with Kanye on several tracks of what became by impressively unanimous critical and popular consensus the album of the year. Among all the tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this is the one that most reminds you of the pop-smart ear that earned West his many millions, and Nicki Minaj's guest verse is so mind-blowing that it overshadowed the entire solo album she released.
The Magnetic Fields, "You Must Be Out of Your Mind"
Stephin Merritt's 21st-century albums—2010's Realism included—don't match the standard of the remarkable streak of releases leading up to 1999's 69 Love Songs, but oh well. They still reliably each contain multiple numbers in that beautifully acid style that's been much admired by other songwriters, but never matched. This opening track is classic Merritt: "I want you crawling back to me/ Down on your knees, yeah/ Like an appendectomy/ Sans anesthesia."
Arcade Fire, "City With No Children"
The Suburbs was another album that suffered by comparison to its predecessors, but it's a long, rich set that in the long run will enhance rather than diminish Arcade Fire's already towering reputation. What most disappoints me about it, really, is its strangely muddy production.
Eminem featuring Rihanna, "Love the Way You Lie"
Taio Cruz is on this list as a representative of blissfully brainless top 40 fun; conversely, Eminem continues to impress with his ability to take very popular pop music to very dark places. His thing is to sound pissed-off, but here he sounds genuinely frightening: unhinged and rangy. Rihanna, who knows a thing or two about domestic violence, is a poignantly apt duet partner. For most of the genre's history, hip-hop relevance has been available to performers in about the same age range as major league baseball players—even the mighty Jay-Z hesitated to keep performing past 40—but at 37, Eminem is demonstrating that rappers can be like bluesmen, growing leaner and meaner with each passing year.
Sarah Jaffe, "Clementine"
Sarah Jaffe's Suburban Nature reminds me of Haley Bonar's Big Star: accessible but nuanced, a twilight-tinged folk-pop album that you can listen to dozens of times.
Tegan and Sara, "Sheets"
Tegan and Sara are among my very favorite performers (second only to Bob Dylan, says Last.fm), so they're almost certainly going to make my best-of list in any year that they release anything. This was released in 2010 as an outtake from 2009's Sainthood, one of three outtakes from that album (with "Wrists" and "Light Up") that would have been among the best songs on the album if they'd been included.
Natalie Merchant, "Adventures of Isabel"
One of my great musical delights of 2010 was the return of Natalie Merchant, who had disappeared for years to raise her child. Leave Your Sleep, a two-disc set of classic children's poems set to music by Merchant, is a gorgeous collection full of mystery and wonder: Merchant's own beautiful dark twisted fantasy. Most of the album is quiet and contemplative, but it's great to hear her work up a little heat here—with a catchy melody to boot.
Sambassadeur, "High and Low"
Another thing Last.fm has pointed out to me is that I really dig Swedish pop of all flavors and vintages. Sambassaeur have an uncannily consistent knack for producing floating, crystalline music, and their 2010 release European is no exception.
Dessa is undeniable. I'm lucky to have a recording of her performance of this song at the City Pages Best of the Cities show at the Varsity Theater in May—a wonderful souvenir of one of my many memorable nights of Minneapolis music in 2010. (The photo at the top of this blog entry is from that show, taken by Meredith Westin.)
R.E.M., "It Happened Today"
The two songs released in 2010 from R.E.M.'s forthcoming album were widely praised, with some music fans saying that this is exactly what R.E.M. should sound like in 2011. Maybe so, but one of the things I love about R.E.M. is that they've never been much concerned with what they're "supposed" to sound like. There are albums in their extensive catalog that I care for more than others, but everything they release sounds organic and searching. This is how they want to sound right now, and that's what I like to hear.
2010 favorites, part two: Back catalog
MGMT at Rock the Garden; photo by Meredith Westin
Talking Heads, "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" (1978)
One of the best decisions I made this year was to dust off the Once in a Lifetime box set and copy the discs to my computer.
Florence and the Machine, "Kiss With a Fist" (2009)
Pure momentum. Kyle Matteson has noted my enthusiasm for female singers from the U.K.; he passed on Marina and the Diamonds, but he's said he'll definitely show up if Florence and the Machine come to Minneapolis. So will I.
Goldfrapp, "Ooh La La" (2006)
Cruising around in my car, in the innocent glory days of summer before it was bashed in by snowplows. (I wrote that sentence and then realized that grammatically, it's unclear whether it's the car or the summer that was bashed in. Actually, both were.)
Mother Earth Remixes, "Get Up vs. Hotstepper" (release date unknown)
Mother Earth is the Girl Talk of Appleton, Wisconsin. Download his genius mash-ups for free here.
Kid Sister featuring Cee-Lo, "Daydreaming" (2009)
This soaring song was on my best of '09 mix, and stayed strong through '10. It's big and luxurious, and Cee-Lo's vocal cameo is perfect.
Frank Sinatra, "I've Got the World on a String" (1953)
I never really listened to Sinatra, until 2010. I had a lot of catching up to do.
The Sounds, "Four Songs and a Fight" (2009)
Crossing the Rubicon is like an arena—big and fist-pumping and cheesy and awesome. If there's irony here, I can't hear it. Rawk!
MGMT, "Kids" (2008)
I listened to this song a lot, and maybe because of that, I kept noticing it being brought up by others—as in, "MGMT sucked at Rock the Garden, and their new album is boring, but...wow. 'Kids' is actually a really, really good song."
Tegan and Sara, "The Cure" (2009)
As mentioned above, I was a bit disappointed by Sainthood, but this intense, pained song is one of their best.
Cyndi Lauper, "When You Were Mine" (1984)
In the musical battle of the decades, She's So Unusual could stand alone as a case for the 80s. It sounds completely of its time, and completely timeless. In this synth-driven song written by Prince, I love that Lauper doesn't change the gender pronouns. "When you were mine/ You were all I ever wanted to do/ Now I spend my time/ Following him whenever he's with you."
Ke$ha, "Tik Tok" (2009)
Sometimes you don't choose music, it chooses you.
Tilly and the Wall, "Dust Me Off" (2008)
"Singing helps all right/ I've been singing all night."
Amanda Blank, "Lemme Get Some" (2009)
I keep waiting for Amanda Blank to have a Minaj-style breakthrough. She puts on a fantastic live show, and her album I Like You is strong from beginning to end. This track doesn't immediately jump out at you, but it's as addictive as scratching an itch, with a perfectly laconic guest verse by Chuck Inglish of the Cool Kids.
David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens" (2008)
Things in my life—both day to day and year to year—often seem to happen out of sequence, so I never quite know what's coming next. Since its release a couple of years ago, this song has felt like a personal soundtrack. "Nothing has changed, but nothing's the same/ And every tomorrow will be yesterday/ And everything that happens will happen today."
Matt and Kim, "Lessons Learned" (2009)
It took me a while to stop thinking of this as "that nekkie-video song" and actually listen to it as a song. It's transcendent.
Cloud Cult, "Love You All" (2008)
I listened to this song constantly in 2008. Apparently I still do.
Yaz, "Only You" (1982)
In my perfect 2011, Gayngs would reunite and record a new album with a synthy 80s vibe, and they'd release their new album with a First Prom in Space show, and Mark Mallman would make a cameo in his keyboard-arm spacesuit, and for the encore Justin Vernon and Maggie Morrison would sing this song as a duet.
Kate Nash, "Baby Love" (2008)
This Supremes cover was cut at an in-studio promo gig at a radio station. Nash reimagines the song as a spare acoustic ballad, and it's heartbreaking. As you now know, I totally go for that shit.