10. "East Harlem" by Beirut, from the album The Rip Tide.
The Rip Tide’s greatest achievement is “East Harlem”, which finds cultured vagabond Zach Condon crooning a story of commuter blues: Two lovers separated by this lovely, unrelenting Subway system of ours here in New York City. Being a lifelong New Yorker, I was thrilled to finally hear Condon’s interpretation of this often chaotic metropolis. I love the imagery of roses wilting, the brass horns in the instrumental break, and even the subtle humor of lines like, “Uptown / Downtown, a thousand miles between us. She’s waiting for the night to fall; let it fall, I’ll never make it in time.”
9. "Novacane" by Frank Ocean, from the mixtape nostalgia, Ultra
The video for my favorite song of 2010 – and subsequently my favorite song period – features Eric Berglund appearing out of a veil of white smoke wearing one of those Venetian masks from Eyes Wide Shut, playing a guitar solo on a white Gibson Les Paul. Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” refers to that same Eyes Wide Shut eroticism, albeit more directly, using it as a metaphor for a night of stoned debauchery with a girl who gets Ocean wasted off of stolen dental anesthesia. It’s an inventive narrative, but it’s also the most promising piece of music to come out of the consistently disappointing Odd Future collective (ASIDE ALERT: who probably won’t be relevant within another year). The demanding beat pulses alongside Ocean, whose vocal style here recalls the best of 90s New Jack Swing. Ocean spends the aforementioned high looking for some sort of emotional release, but the realization is that he probably won’t remember anything in the morning, and worst of all, the drugs are preventing any feeling during the high itself: “I can’t feel a thing,” Ocean sings, topping off what actually ends up being a sad piece of existentialism.
8. "A Real Hero" by College (feat. Electric Youth), from Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Okay, I cheated. Technically, College’s “A Real Hero” came out in 2009. But it came to prominence from its inclusion in Drive, both in the very last scene of the film and the accompanying soundtrack. And since I can’t hear the song without picturing Ryan Gosling in that white scorpion jacket, it gets a spot on this list (Kavinsky's "Nightcall" is also noteworthy); and even when you listen to it, it sounds strikingly like a song written for the film as opposed to an obscure synth pop number picked for the soundtrack. Cliff Martinez deserves a lot of the credit for setting the tone of Drive (and an Oscar), but Ryan Gosling (second Oscar nomination forthcoming, since he was foolishly overlooked for Blue Valentine) blinking his eyes just wouldn’t have had the same effect if it weren’t for “A Real Hero” promptly reminding us that catharsis doesn’t always have to be so plainly obvious.
7. "Kaputt" by Destroyer, from the album Kaputt
Dan Bejar had been making eccentric rock records for years as Destroyer, but it wasn’t until Kaputt that I took notice. Kaputt is immaculately polished, carefully borrowing from some of rock’s forgotten heroes: Like the saxophone driven pretention of Bryan Ferry’s timeless art rock band, Roxy Music. Kaputt’s title track is rock excess personified. What begins as a yearning for an article in virtually any respected music journal (Smash Hits, Melody Maker, and NME) soon turns to nightly cocaine highs and chasing women “through the backrooms of the world.” The handy commentary on America and our nasty habit of worshipping these strung out rock stars is present in spades, but it’s the rhythm section that makes it special. Kaputt comes off as wise, not condescending; it’s the sort of record that only a rock veteran with eight prior albums could dare to even write, let alone pull off with skill and class.
6. "The Morning" by the Weeknd, from the mixtape House of Balloons
The Weeknd released “What You Need” and immediately we all wanted to know more about this enigmatic R&B project from Toronto. The aesthetic was definitely intriguing, to say the least: Black and white photos of women in the shortest black skirts possible (or no clothes at all), gothic, almost post-punk sonics (with a contemporary R&B vibe), and depictions of partying on a level you wouldn’t even dream of—even if you had time off from work. The mystery of the Weeknd has since been expelled (Thanks, Drake! Ugh), but that doesn’t make House of Balloons any less valuable; in fact, it’s both reassuring and terrifying at the same time that these songs indeed come from a real person. His name is Abel Tesfaye, and I sure as hell hope that House of Balloons isn’t autobiographical. “The Morning”, the slickest track on the mixtape, is the thesis statement of House of Balloons. This is live fast, die young to the extreme: Massive amounts of drugs, loose women, going to sleep, waking up in the morning (hopefully), and doing it all over again. It’s the verse, chorus, verse equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, and with how good it sounds, it’s damn persuasive: "Downtown lovin', when the moon comin', only place to find base heads and hot women!"
5. "No Widows" by the Antlers, from the album Burst Apart
Before its release, The Antlers announced that Burst Apart would be a more “electro” oriented record, but also that it wouldn’t be the same “emotionally heavy experience” as Hospice. Thank G-d. While I’m certain that Peter Silberman is capable of writing another narrative as beautifully tragic as Hospice, I don’t think that he wants to, nor should he. With that in mind, Burst Apart is quite literal: It’s the final separation and closure from Hospice, from the “sad town” of the patient and her unnamed male caregiver, her failed marriage, implied child abuse, and a pregnancy that foreshadowed the end rather than the beginning. While there aren’t any overly “happy” Antlers songs, it’s an aesthetic choice this time around for Burst Apart rather than actual sulking depression. The industrial churning of “No Widows” pauses as Silberman sings, “If I never get back home, there’s no garden overgrown,” and then retreats to the background beat. As Silberman’s ghostly falsetto reaches its peak, the grandiose bursts of emotion from Hospice return but without the lingering shadow of its narrative. I can’t think of many vocals this year that contained the power of Silberman’s delivery, especially the finale: “When they shake, say the wings won’t break.”
4. "Demons" by A$AP Rocky, from the mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP
A$AP Rocky has true respect for rap music, and the knowledge he gained through constant observation culminated in a debut record that is by no means amateur; LIVELOVEA$AP is the work of a true perfectionist, with even its promotional videos (partially directed by Rocky himself) showcasing an artist clearly above his actual experience. “Demons” is one of many standouts on LIVELOVEA$AP, and it’s also a perfect coupling of rapper and producer. Rocky understands production, and more importantly, he gets songwriting. “Demons” only has one standard verse; meanwhile, the remainder of the song drifts on a laidback hook that compliments the ethereal soundscape courtesy of Clams Casino. Rocky knows exactly how each part of the puzzle fits, as “Demons” lasts for only three minutes yet feels entirely complete. While “I be that pretty motherfucker!” are certainly words to live by (“Peso” is an outstanding song in its own right), it’s good to know that Rocky can be a little deeper when he wants.
3. "Glass Jar" by Gang Gang Dance, from the album Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance inexplicitly tours with a Japanese vagabond, Taka Imamura. The band’s spiritual guide (or “vibes manager,” as he prefers to be called) doesn’t play a single instrument on Eye Contact. He doesn’t sing, nor did he produce or engineer any of the songs. However, despite his seemingly arbitrary and bizarre presence, waving flags at live shows that he pieced together from garbage (a true homeless Manhattanite), Imamura effortlessly prologues Eye Contact, clearly stating, “I can hear everything; it’s everything time.”
It’s a paradoxical statement, as its clarity and definitiveness describes the oncoming slow build-up of “Glass Jar” whilst also representing the only isolated sound heard on the entire album (Imamura’s voice). As Imamura truthfully states, Eye Contact is “everything”, which makes his brief contribution that much more profound. Every song is woven with a ridiculously eclectic variety of musical styles and samples, clashing against one another until the individual sources are completely obscured. “Glass Jar” climbs to its peak patiently, with a spiritual – courtesy of Imamura’s odd musings – foundation that explodes into a vibrant collage of keyboards, circling percussion, and singer Lizzi Bougatsos’ unintelligible vocal delivery. Those with patience will find great reward in the eleven minutes and some seconds of “Glass Jar”, and those without it will miss out not on a song, but an experience.
2. "Midnight City" by M83, from the album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
A disappointing album, but an incredible lead single. Sound familiar? Does “Kim and Jessie” ring a bell? I’m well aware that many find M83’s albums to be both worthwhile and complete. I, however, don’t; my issue is that Anthony Gonzalez doesn’t seem to know whether or not he wants to make computerized ambient records, or pop records that recall just about every John Hughes film ever made (the end result come across as disjointed). The latter is what I prefer from M83, and while Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming certainly had more singing than it did ambitious, albeit meandering, instrumentals, I didn’t think that the songs were very good. Of course, with every M83 album there is always that one outlier that makes me believe in Gonzalez all over again despite my better judgment. This time around it was “Midnight City”. Hell, I even tried to get tickets to see the band live at the Music Hall of Williamsburg!
“Midnight City” is as close to flawless as you can get in the realm of pop music. The abstract keyboard riff creates frenzy, juxtaposing Gonzalez’s soft and gorgeous personification of an inescapable neon utopia—a place that only a true dreamer and chronic escapist could conceive of. Unlike the other songs on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez gearing up toward a more violent vocal is appropriate (“This city is my church”), as it introduces the blaring saxophone solo that – much like in the excellent video – has enough force to set the sun.
1. "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey, from the album Born to Die
I really don’t concern myself with Lana Del Rey’s gimmick, mostly because I recognize it as just that, a gimmick. Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t see entertainers as being held to the same standards as average people. In fact, what would be so entertaining about them if nothing were exaggerated? You can criticize Lana’s look, and the obvious work she’s had done on her face to accompany a rather ridiculous femme-fatale aesthetic, but “Video Games” is the heartfelt accomplishment of a true singer; no matter how contrived her image is, it’s hard to deny her that.
Lana calling herself the “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” her botched Botox, millions upon millions of hits on YouTube, a rather rocky (and nervous) performance on Jools Holland, a major record deal with Interscope, and an inevitable (some feel, unearned and handed) future climb to superstardom . . . for some reason, these aforementioned criticisms have perpetuated disregard to the song that put forth all of this attention in the first place. Prior to “Video Games”, Lana had a few songs that – at best – could score a scene in a pulpy Tarantino film. But “Blue Jeans” and the recently released “Born to Die” point to “Video Games” being more than just a happenstance fluke by a so-called manufactured pop star.
And it’s not just an era-specific thing either. The swelling, orchestral piano balladry of “Video Games” sounds old, and yes, songstresses such as Nancy Sinatra recorded similarly emotional songs in the much-too-often drooled over fifties and sixties—most of which were written for them. But it’s the contemporary spin that Lana puts on it, the way she describes the dependency of love, which left me in awe: “He holds me in his big arms, drunk and I am seeing stars, this is all I think of.” Lana delivers these lines beautifully, but there’s a tragic underlying portrait as to what this girl is willing to give up in return for this all-too-clichéd ideal—essentially, her life: “They say that the world was built for two, only worth living if somebody is loving you.” There is implied doubt as to whether or not it's even the life she even wants, “watching all our friends fall, in and out of old Paul’s, this is my idea of fun,” making the whole of the lyrics portray a bleak mental prison of devotion. Lana Del Rey may have a 'fake' appearance (and a character that she chooses to portray), but both “Video Games” and her talent are entirely real. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you.”