Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Music

As the year winds down, its time to reflect upon it, and judge it for what it brought. Musically, it was a rich year, with some truly terrific songs and albums. I'm not usually one for reviewing music, but since I do have my Radio Daze column, I figured I might as well share with you the songs and albums that moved me this year. Enjoy.
"On Melancholy Hill," Gorillaz

Gorillaz is probably the best animated electro-rock band out there right now, not that that's a thick field. But they've been consistently good since their 2001 debut, and Plastic Beach, their third album, was no exception this year. If every song wasn't as instantly catchy as 2005's Demon Days, they were still interesting sonic experiences. The standout track, though, was "On Melancholy Hill," a terrific pop nugget marked by a propulsive beat and chirpy synth. The song feels perfect for the soundtrack to a whimsical romance, with its refrain of "when you're close to me" making the yearning plea for companionship. Its arguably the best song Gorillaz have ever recorded.
"Like a Prayer," Glee Cast

As television, Glee has had a rough year in 2010, as you can read in my season two Glee-caps. But musically, the show has continued to produce decent to excellent covers. But just like last year's "Don't Stop Believin'," only one song this year proved to be truly transcendent. Glee has always operated best when doing '80s songs and Broadway showstoppers, and Madonna is a holy mixture of both, with a voice that shines through her songs. "Like A Prayer" saw the Glee cast turn Madonna's classic into a full-on gospel revival, lifting the spirit while entertaining the ears. Its a truly incredible performance, and certainly one of the show's musical high points.
"Teqkilla," M.I.A.

M.I.A. took a bad knock for her new album, /\/\/\Y/\, this year. After finding commercial success with "Paper Planes," she intentionally made a dense, radio-unfriendly album full of fuzzed-out vocals, squiggling synths, and thudding beats. Every song is a new experiment, and more often than not they work. "Teqkilla" is one of the album's best tracks, with a busy, almost-industrial sound covering up M.I.A.'s lyrics. Its a song that should be off-putting and skippable, but is actually oddly dancable and enjoyable. Though, if you do check out her album, be sure to give "Born Free," "Tell Me Why," and "It Takes a Muscle" as well.
"Fuck You," Cee-Lo Green
Cee-Lo Green has never been one to play by mainstream rules; just look at his work in Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley for proof. But nothing could have prepared us for this: a deliciously profane pop song that takes its angry lyrics and throws them over a bouncy, retro-soul beat to create a genuinely perfect song. What's even more stunning is that the song managed to become a radio hit, even showing up on Glee to be covered by none other than Gwyneth Paltrow. If that's not a testament of how enjoyable this song truly is, nothing is.
"Dog Days Are Over," Florence + the Machine
This is kind of cheat, since this song appears on her 2009 album Lungs. But its hard to ignore: its an exciting song with primal drums and chamber music instrumentation. But the real star is Florence Welch's beautiful, out-sized voice, a wonderous instrument that carries the song higher and farther than otherwise possible. There's a great music video for the song too, but its her live performances that showcase what really makes her special.
"Tangerine," Big Boi featuring T.I.
For some reason, the Grammys completely ignored Big Boi's excellent solo album Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, which is the best album Outkast never made. And one of the album's many standouts is this slow-rolling, sensual piece of ATL rap, as Big Boi and T.I. trade verses about a stripper named Tangerine. Its Southern rap at its best, only marred by the question of what it would be if Andre 3000 had participated. I think its time for an Outkast reunion!
"Drop the World," Lil' Wayne and Eminem

Lil' Wayne had a more difficult year this year than he did before. A solid portion of the year was spent in jail, but he still managed to release two albums this year. "Drop the World" is the standout from the first, Rebirth. Rebirth was an experiment in making a rock album, one that was an interesting experiment that hopefully Wayne has gotten out of his system. But this song finds him rapping in fine form, skipping the crunchy guitars and rock cliches for pure rage. More significantly, months before Recovery debuted, Eminem made his real comeback here, spitting one of the year's most fierce and incredible verses. He steals the song, and in the process announced that he's back in peak form.
Nicki Minaj guest verses

At the beginning of the year, Drake was supposed to land as rap's hottest new act of 2010, and he did indeed release a terrific album and prove to be an exciting new voice with a refreshing sound (he reaped a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for it). But by year's end, it was Nicki Minaj who earned that title, with a well-received album of her own and numerous guest spots that made you forget the song belonged to someone else. From Lil' Wayne's "Knockout" to Ludacris' "My Chick Bad" to Trey Songz's "Bottoms Up," Minaj destroyed songs with her spitfire style and multiple personas. Perhaps none was better than her verse on Kanye West's "Monster," which is mercifully extended to let her cram even more stunning wordplay into the song. Here's hoping her 2011 will be just as good. And speaking of Mr. West.....
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West

Kanye West is a genius. There, I said it, and I'm not ashamed of it. He released the best album of the year even though he began 2010 the object of everyone's hatred. But he came back just by being himself. And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an album to truly behold, easily his best yet. After the stark minimalism of 2008's criminally underrated 808s and Heartbreak, West goes the opposite direction here and makes everything as big and epic as possible. Gargantuan choirs, blasting horns, thumping basslines, pianos; everything here is ramped up. The guest list, too, is massive, including Drake, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Raekwon, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Dwele, Pusha T, Fergie, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Elton John, Bon Iver, Ryan Leslie, Gil Scott-Heron, Chris Rock, and La Roux. And thematically, West is not shying away from boasting, but he shows a new self-awareness, as seen in the awe-inspiring "Runaway:" only West could make "let's have a toast for the douchebags" both a celebration and a self-reflection. "All of the Lights" is a bold declaration, "Monster" is a summit of terrific rappers, and "Devil in a New Dress" has a fierce guitar part. Then there's "Lost in the World," the album closer that serves as a perfect culmination of the entire album. This is to say nothing of the music videos its spawned, from the "moving portrait" of "Power" to the 35-minute short film for "Runaway," easily the best music video of the year. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is West's Barbaric Yawp, his cry from his own Mt. Olympus over the roofs of the world. Or, to put it in West's own words, "every superhero needs his own theme music." Indeed.

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