As I have in years past, I’ve gone back through my iTunes library and sorted through the stacks of CDs on my desk, and have compiled a list of my favorite songs of the year. They’re not ranked in any sort of order, but rather, listed in such a way as to make for a nice listening experience if you were to listen to them as an actual mix.
1. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — “Round And Round”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s Before Today was one of my big disappointments of 2010. I won’t rehash my complaints — read them here, if you’d like — but part of the issue was that it just couldn’t live up to its first single: “Round and Round.” I knew as soon as I heard it that it would rank pretty high when year’s end came around, and time has done little to nothing to diminish its standing. It’s a song that stands outside of time, evoking multiple eras — 60s psychedelia, 70s disco, 80s synth-pop — without ever belonging to any of them. And it all coasts along effortlessly on the best strutting bassline this side of “Billie Jean,” as well as one of the best bridges and vocal hooks you could ever possible imagine.
2. Jóhann Jóhannsson — “Theme”
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “The Sun’s Gone Dim And The Sky’s Turned Black” was recently used to good effect in the trailer for Battle: Los Angeles, which might get you to thinking that the man ought to be hired to do more film scores. To which I would respond that you should probably check out And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees, a soundtrack he composed for Marc Craste’s animated short Varmints (which I haven’t seen). The soundtrack begins with the aptly titled “Theme,” in which Jóhannsson strips away most of the avant-garde elements that characterize his take on modern classical, and instead, opts primarily for sparse piano notes and gracefully swaying strings. All told, “Theme” was one of the moving pieces of music I heard all year, and it nearly always puts a lump in my throat.
3. Manual — “Pulsations”
I’ve become a little tired of Jonas Munk’s music over the years. While it’s all uniformly lovely, with its consistently lovely evocation of shoegazer bliss and ambience, it’s just that: uniform. Which is why Drowned in Light really impressed me: it was the first time in a long time that Munk sounded like he was stretching himself. Specifically, stretching all the way back to the 70s, and the analog synth sounds of Germany’s kosmische scene. “Pulsations” is the best example of this, a seven-minute cosmic journey of sinister, undulating basslines, synth arpeggios, and his trademark shoegazer sound. It’s easily one of the trippiest and most fascinating things he’s ever done. What’s more, it feels like the first step in a new direction for Munk, one I hope he continues towards on future releases.
4. Shearwater — “Hidden Lakes”
For a long time, Shearwater was on that ever-growing list of bands that I knew I really needed to check out, and yet I was never able to get around to checking out. Which sounds really lame, I know, but it is what it is. Anyways, The Golden Archipelago is a truly solid album, but since it came out relatively early in the year, it slid off my radar as the year went on… but not entirely. That was due largely to “Hidden Lakes”, a gloriously sublime song in which Jonathan Meiburg’s haunted vocals are slowly bolstered by a building array of piano, strings, horns, and odd bits and bobs of glassy percussion. Though it seems to be heading in that direction, it never builds to a stirring climax — but then again, it doesn’t need to. That would surely cause the dreamy, wistful world that “Hidden Lakes” constructs in its nearly four minutes to self-destruct, and we wouldn’t want that.
5. The Cure — “Disintegration” (Live)
Earlier this year, The Cure reissued their greatest album — that’d be 1989’s Disintegration — as a three-disc special edition. The first disc was the remastered original album, the second a collection of rarities (demos, rehearsals, instrumentals), and the third disc was Entreat Plus, a live recording of the band at Wembley in 1989. The first two discs are nice, but only essential if you’re a diehard Cure-head (that’s doubly true for the second disc, which I’ve only listened to once or twice). The live recording, though, is outstanding, and reveals the band to be perfectly capable of reproducing the album’s densely layered sounds in a live context. The live version of “Disintegration,” a swirling, delirious recap of a relationship gone horribly awry, is especially brilliant, and contains a rawness and urgency that the studio version, awesome thought it may be, lacks.
6. Mono — “Halcyon (Beautiful Days)”
“Halcyon (Beautiful Days)” originally appeared on Mono’s 2004 album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined. But it also appeared on the band’s staggering live album Holy Ground: NYC Live which came out earlier this year. Backed by the The Wordless Music Orchestra, Mono’s brand of emotive post-rock raises to new heights here. It’s way to easy to lump Mono in with the likes of Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai, but understandable. The Japanese quartet may generate the same apocalyptic levels of sound as their peers, but as “Halcyon (Beautiful Days)” shows with its graceful swells and lovely melodies, their music’s true impact lies in the heartbreaking emotional heft that they bring to bear in their music.
7. The Sight Below — “New Dawn Fades”
Countless bands have aped Joy Division’s style over the years, with some doing it better than others. But few, if any of them, have come close to matching the original’s intensity and sophisticated-yet-primal sense of alienation and angst. The Sight Below’s Rafael Anton Irisarri succeeds simply because he doesn’t try to sound like Joy Division: you’ll find no wiry guitars, surging basslines, mechanical percussion, or detached vocals here. Instead, The Sight Below renders the song as a murky ambient landscape that threatens to swallow up Jesy Fortino’s fragile vocals at a glacial, implacable pace. The result hints at the most powerful emotions conjured up by Joy Division’s music, but in a manner that is not slavishly devoted to the past.
8. The Roots — “Right On”
On paper, the combination of the legendary Roots crew and everyone’s favorite indie harpstress/Renaissance Faire troubadour — that’d be Joanna Newsom, if you didn’t know — seems like the recipe for pretentious disaster, a mashup that just should not work in the first place. And yet, it works and brilliantly so. At one point in the song, Black Thought proclaims “I told y’all I’m above and beyond a gimmick” and the remainder of the song bears out the truth of that statement. As the group samples from Newsom’s “Book of Right-On”, Questlove lays down an extra-solid beat and Black Thought and STS shoot out lyrical bursts that are hypnotic, amusing, and full of swagger. Put it all together, and you’ve got my favorite jam of the year.
9. Balam Acab — “See Birds”
I first came across Balam Acab’s music via Pitchfork’s “Ghosts in the Machine” article, which took a look at the “witch house” genre. I may still think that the genre’s name is as silly as ever, but that does nothing to lessen how enchanting and enthralling “See Birds” continues to be for me. Even after all this time, the song remains an enigma to these ears with its sludgy yet eerily graceful atmospherics, e.g., syrupy slow male/female vocal hooks, gently swelling drones, and somnambulistic beats. So much so, in fact, that I feel like I’m always listening to only part of the song, and that a significant portion lies just outside the edge of my consciousness in some dream-state that I can barely access.
Part two of my 2010 mix will be posted tomorrow.