The Top 20 Tracks of 2012

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I listened to enough songs this year to choke a horse. And while digging through the bloated horse corpse that I like to call 2012, I found 20 of them that I especially liked.

20. Kanye West (Ft. DJ Khaled) – “Cold”

Over computer blips and orchestra hits, ‘Ye infuses his verses with that on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown passion we know and love, including a PETA-baiting line on the chorus that’s one for the ages.

19. Psy – “Gangnam Style”

There’s a moment in “Gangnam Style” where the music cuts out, and for just a second, Psy waits before delivering the chorus. The anticipation we all feel right then, in spite of ourselves? That explains how pop music can take over the world.

18. The Beach Boys – “Summer’s Gone”

Mike Love has done more than enough to deserve the claim of “the biggest asshole in rock history.” But there could be a silver lining to his latest dick move, because if the Beach Boys never record together again, their final musical statement will be this gorgeous, mortality-laden track. “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in,” Brian Wilson croons over a sea of swooning strings, echoey woodblocks, and artfully stacked harmonies – taking our breath away one last time before the leaves turn.

17. Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”

Japandroids pull off quite a trick here, putting inspirational poster sentiments and stadium-ready riffage in a blender, and churning out a fist-pumping rock anthem for the downtrodden. No guitar could be loud enough to drown out its big, bloody, beating heart.

16. Dirty Projectors – “Impregnable Question”

The newly found, homespun sweetness of Dirty Projectors latest work is summed up in this chorus: “I need you/And you’re always on my mind.”

15. Ty Segall – “There Is No Tomorrow”

After a year spent pounding our eardrums like Tiny Keith Moon™, Ty Segall closed out his last of three records with this, a supremely catchy fuzzbox ballad that could be a lost Plastic Ono Band demo.

14. Frank Ocean – “Forrest Gump”

Over a smooth, Isley Brothers groove, Frank Ocean took a piece of pop culture I revile and transformed it into one of the sweetest romantic sentiments of the year: “You running on my mind, boy.”

13. Killer Mike – “Southern Fried”

The ultimate song to drive to in 2012, “Southern Fried” is quintessential Killer Mike, full of towering swagger, scythe-sharp wit, and a flow so commanding, it makes you feel like your 2005 Honda Civic is indeed your “meanest machine.”

12. Bob Dylan – “Soon After Midnight”

“I’m searching for phrases/To sing your praises.” How great is it that this, the most romantic opening line I heard this year, came from a grizzled old goat like Bob Dylan? And it doesn’t hurt that what follows is a total stunner of a country & western ballad, one of the prettiest tunes of the legend’s third act renaissance.

11. Angel Haze – “Werkin’ Girls”

With little more than a basic beat behind her, this brilliant, up-and-coming Brooklynite makes you stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention. An ode to females gettin’ cheddar, “Werkin’ Girls” doesn’t just break the glass ceiling – it crushes it back down to the sand from whence it came.

10. Usher – “Twisted”

Over a Pharrell Williams beat that radiates classic soul sunshine, Usher reboots Chubby Checker in the guise of a possessive man whose woman just refuses to play it straight. A summer jam if there ever was one.

9. Tenacious D – “Roadie”

Mythologizing the concert roadie as the heroic warrior who never gets knighted, The D pairs skillfully melodramatic wordplay with soaring melodies. In between belly laughs, there lies the urge to sing along as loudly as can be.

8. Trey Songz – “2 Reasons”

I’m just finishing up David McCullough’s massive 1992 biography of Harry Truman, a plain-spoken man who had to fill the shoes of the far more eloquent FDR. I think that if Truman were alive today, he’d enjoy “2 Reasons,” at least on principle. Because when Trey Songz outlines, in no uncertain terms, the pair of reasons why he came to the club, he’s as straightforward as a Missouri farmer.

7. Nicki Minaj – “I Am Your Leader”

It’s too bad that Nicki Minaj albums remain nothing more than places to corral her singles, but damn, there’s nothing quite like those singles. “I Am Your Leader” was the best of several good ones this year, awash in Minaj’s masterful mic control and silly sense of humor, an example of the artist at her unpolished best. And Cam’ron’s hysterical cameo gets my vote for best guest verse of 2012.

6. Randy Newman – “I’m Dreaming”

No matter how many Pixar movies he scores, Randy Newman will always be one bitter son of a bitch. And “I’m Dreaming” – a piece of right-wing election year satire just begging to be misunderstood, a la 2004’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” – is as beautifully, caustically sarcastic as the guy has ever been.

5. Screaming Females – “Doom 84”

Very few guitar riffs can sound fresh after seven minutes of jamming. “Doom 84” has two of them, and Marissa Paternoster wields them like fiery broadswords, breaking down our natural inclination to refrain from banging our heads, caring not that our necks will be sore.

4. Mystikal – “Hit Me”

James Brown’s influence on hip hop can’t be overstated. But it’s never been so apparent as it is in this song, in which Mystikal appropriates Brown’s energy, rhythms and vernacular in pursuit of his own, Dirty South-ified version of “Star Time.” It’s an instant party, a blast of adrenaline, and a showcase for the emcee’s irresistible, raspy exuberance.

3. Frank Ocean – “Bad Religion”

A soul-searching confession, a tale not only of unrequited love, but of potentially unrequited moral fiber, “Bad Religion” is a jaw dropper. Ocean sings his open vein of a lyric sheet with a power that only comes from autobiography, that one squealed high note a window to his vulnerability. Art rarely gets this real.

2. Kendrick Lamar – “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”

My grandfather passed away a few months ago, right around the time Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City album was released. Which left me in a state of mind to be floored by this song, a 12-minute existential epic about how human beings long to be remembered after they’re gone. They say that once you put something on the Internet, you can never truly erase it, so maybe these words about Thomas M. Sweeney, Sr., will indeed live forever: He was a good, humble man, who worked hard, loved his wife, and never had a negative thing to say to me. I miss him.

1. Miguel – “Adorn”

As devastatingly sexy a pop song as its clear influence, “Sexual Healing,” “Adorn” swoons in lady worship, Miguel’s voice gliding over the synths and drum machines, confident in its innate silkiness, like something beautiful that just happens naturally. Like love.

Top 20 Tracks of 2011

It’s funny that in a year where we received a deluxe reissue of Nevermind, so few traditional rock bands truly mattered. Sixteen of 20 spots on this list belong to a solo artist, all of whom contributed to 2011’s varied and ambitious musical landscape (and one of whom sang about Solo cups).

20. Eddie Vedder – “Sleeping By Myself”

As much as I loved Pearl Jam in 1992, boy was it easy to make fun of Eddie Vedder’s hysterical mumbles. But this Ukulele Songs standout showcases a voice that’s aged well, embodying the sweet ache of unrequited love without a hint of histrionics.

19. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Love has been compared to pretty much everything in Mother Nature. But on “I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li manages to breathe life into another water metaphor. When she sings “You’re my river running high/Running deep, run wild,” over a murk of B3 organ and clanky synth toms, it’s the sound of someone trusting a potentially dangerous current, because to do so is to be alive.

18. Tech N9ne – “He’s A Mental Giant”

It was a year of wasted potential for Tech N9ne. All 6s and 7s had some highlights, but was overlong. His buzzsaw of a guest spot was wasted on Lil Wayne’s underwhelming Tha Carter IV. But this track’s rumbling swagger cut through the clutter as well as anything in 2011, positioning this brilliant, tongue-twisting MC as the brainiac superhero we need to protect us from whatever the Black Eyed Peas plan to do next.

17. Beyoncé – “1+1”

Few artists have captured feelings of dumbstruck yearning like Sam Cooke did with “Wonderful World.” Which makes this Cooke-inspired, octave-leaping gem of a ballad all the more impressive. Our problems might be bigger these days, but one math problem still trumps them all.

16. Tom Waits – “Get Lost”

Tom Waits is old enough to be a grandpa, but he steps into the shoes of a sexy young hood on “Get Lost,” tossing off exquisitely penned pleas for elopement with a trembling, psycho-Elvis warble. Toss in that filthy blues groove, and you’re reaching for the passenger door.

15. Nick Lowe – “Stoplight Roses”

This song nails that moment when you know you’ve fucked up a beautiful thing, and for good this time. Utilizing a killer metaphor for something that will never last, “Stoplight Roses” goes out to everyone who didn’t miss their water until the well ran dry.

14. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

It’s been a long time since we heard a single like this from the Beasties, a hooky slab of fuzzbox funk and freewheeling rhymes that’s just messy enough to be dangerous.

13. Bill Callahan – “America!”

On this stilted blues-folk epic, Bill Callahan shows love for his homeland by attempting to soothe its damaged psyche, with comedy and drama, self-loathing and bruised patriotism. When he bellows, “Everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention,” you best remove your hat, out of respect.

12. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

This is the perfect title for a Coldplay song. A phrase so brazenly gag-inducing, you end up respecting the sensitive-guy cojones required to actually use it. Then there’s the insistent kick drum, that beautiful Jonny Buckland guitar hook, and lyrics about the power of music to transport. Sure, you might’ve just puked, but wouldn’t you know it, you feel better.

11. Dominique Young Unique – “Gangster Whips”

Few rappers these days have the energy of this 19-year-old Tampa MC, who makes it indubitably clear that she’s the shit, and that those who disagree can go take one. On “Gangster Whips,” DYU gets all thug romantic over a tremendous, orchestra-hit-heavy beat – sorry T.I., but this is swagger at its best.

10. Heidecker & Wood – “Christmas Suite”

Nothing laid to tape in 2011 was funnier than Starting From Nowhere, the subtly ridiculous yacht-rock album from Adult Swim vets Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood. And “Christmas Suite” is Nowhere’s coup de grace – eight minutes of proselytizing about the importance of “the children.”

9. Brad Paisley – “Toothbrush”

The sweetest love song of the year might’ve looked like a reach on paper (as well as an ad for Reach). But this romance-via-dental-hygiene country shuffle is irresistible, thanks to Brad Paisley’s economy with words, those bouncy guitar licks, and a twist in the third verse that’ll get your waterworks flowing.

8. Beyonce – “Countdown”

This is a jam that grabs you by the ears and doesn’t let go. Beyoncé sings her guts out about her hubby (whom she grinds up on whilst in his boo coupe) and their baby to come, making for a cut that’s simultaneously wholesome and narcotic, 3-2-1 Contact chorus and all.

7. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”

If you’ve ever loved someone to a borderline sociopathic level, this hazy folk masterpiece is your soundtrack. “I get sick of just about everyone,” Kurt Vile admits, positioning the warmth of his love’s embrace as not only a comfort, but a refuge.

6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Otis”

The “golden age” of rap music ended around the same time sampling laws started to be enforced. And this exhilarating single would have us believe that’s no coincidence. Over a brilliant interpolation of “Try A Little Tenderness,” Jay and ‘Ye have the time of their lives.

5. Toby Keith – “Red Solo Cup”

We all know Toby Keith the jingoistic rabble-rouser, but he’s actually more of a goofball Parrothead. And “Red Solo Cup” is more clever by half than anything Jimmy Buffett ever did. An ode to everyone’s favorite keg party drinking vessel, this back porch singalong is catchy, unpretentious, and – when Keith confesses that the cup is his friend – downright hilarious.

4. Nas – “Nasty”

The knock against Nas is that he’s inconsistent. But damn, do his flashes of brilliance burn bright. “Nasty” has no chorus, no guests, and no mainstream ambitions. It’s just Nas, spitting three glorious, amphetamine verses over a skeletal breakbeat. When he lists the places he’s stashed his cash, it’s clear he’s worth every penny.

3. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock 1950s sound effect that’s appeared in countless Hollywood battle scenes, from Star Wars to Captain America. And it’s an ingenious title for James Blake’s icy cover of his father’s song “Where To Turn.” “All that I know is/I’m falling,” Blake sings, describing those moments when we feel like stunt men – silent, non-descript, and floating in space.

2. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

It was no contest – this was the song of summer 2011. With masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around, soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”), the louder you crank “Super Bass,” the more your worries fade.

1. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

“You had my heart inside of your hand/And you played it to the beat,” lamented 2011’s biggest rock star. It’s a great line, but what made “Rolling In The Deep” such a triumph was its organic groove – that thumping bass drum pulse belying all those lyrics about betrayal, making us stronger with every downbeat.

Top 20 Albums of 2011

Please read my words about these music records that I listened to and thought were good.

20. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

After a pair of masterfully ambitious rock productions made them critical darlings, these hyper-creative Brooklynites shipped their operation to California at the turn of the decade. And while it’s easy to give too much credit to the city where a recording was made, Nine Types Of Light sure does sound like TVOTR’s “L.A. album.” Overtly catchy melodies are the order of the day, with bright, relatively sparse production backing up Tunde Adebimpe’s newfound romanticism. As a result, we get some of the most unexpected, and memorable, love songs of the year. “You’re the only one I’ll ever love” isn’t exactly a tattoo-worthy lyric, but coming from a guy who used to sing about werewolf coupling, its sincerity is shocking.

19. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

18. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest “love is nice” aesthetic, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay has a defined goal here – marry their arena-baiting elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of uber-producer Brian Eno, they get the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing. “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, is a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring its polarizing, sensitive-guy roots.

17. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

Here’s what Carrie Underwood couldn’t quite pull off with that car-upholstery-vandalism song. Hell On Heels is the debut album from Pistol Annies, a country supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Like Underwood’s hit, this is chart-baiting female empowerment country, but the comparisons end there. Yes, these ladies are sick of male bullshit, but they go deeper than petty revenge fantasies (although those crop up here and there, most entertainingly on the killer title track). With little more than guitar, fiddle and pedal steel to guide them, the Annies sing about shotgun weddings, pill addicted tour hounds, embarrassing family squabbles and various trailers of tears. The vocals are as plain and true as the tunes; all three members have the kind of friendly, Dolly Parton drawl that lends a sickly sweetness to lines like “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire.”

16. Feist – Metals

It appears that Leslie Feist got just as tired of that iPod commercial as we did. Her third record is titled appropriately, if only because it’s an emotional palette of dark and darker greys. How decidedly un-twee are we talking? “What does sadness see?/The mirror has a mirror in its teeth/That’s what sadness sees,” the vocalist shares over the sullen acoustic chords of “Comfort Me.” Then, right when you’re starting to wonder if this is poignant or insufferable, a big “la-la-la” chorus kicks in, and you’re won over, whether you felt like moping around or not. This is what’s so compelling about Metals – there are hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.

15. Mastodon – The Hunter

The conceptual insanity of Mastodon’s first three records – a water, earth and sky cycle with story lines that I dare you to try and follow – was a big part of their appeal. No metal band has provided better fodder for nerd arguments (“Who’s more powerful, Cysquatch or Megalodon?”). But The Hunter finds the band in a different place. They’ve moved on from the soul-searching grandiosity of Crack The Skye, content to hunker down and just make thunderous rock music. They’re still on their zoology jones, singing about owls and octopi, snakes and swamp creatures, but The Hunter‘s purpose is quintessentially human – to get the party started. When the post-apocalyptic aliens arrive to analyze our civilization, this record will explain why things that made us feel good were described as “kick-ass.”

14. Drake – Take Care

Drake’s 2010 debut Thank Me Later was remarkable for its mix of monster rap hooks and confessional booth R&B. For his follow-up, the 25-year-old has put all his eggs in the latter basket, revealing himself as the antithesis of “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” Take Care is a long, sumptuous gaze in the mirror, with the artist rapping and singing in equal measure over soft beds of synths. It’s a perilous road for any pop star to take, but Drake manages to come off honest, acknowledging his ego and the tax bracket that boosts it, while struggling to find a meaningful relationship with anybody beyond his trusted crew. “We live in a generation of not being in love,” he theorizes on “Doing It Wrong,” a gorgeous bit of quiet storm R&B. Then all the melodrama gets punctuated by a lyrical harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, and Take Care’s beautiful contradiction is driven home – this is self-centered music that treats its listeners with class.

13. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

The King of Limbs is a short piece of work by Radiohead standards, which was seen as a disappointment by some. I see it as a sign of the band’s maturity. This is a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid – but only after multiple listens. If it went on for an hour, it would wear down the most devout listener, much like the second half of Hail to the Thief. Plus, the band rewards us by ending the record with a pair of immediately accessible tunes – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” The only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

12. Beyoncé – 4

Were it not for an uncharacteristically awkward guest appearance from Kanye West, 4 would be the perfect Beyoncé record, a fantastically sung, finely tuned exploration of love’s ups and downs. Her vocals have never been better, relying less on Mariah acrobatics and more on emotional shading, turning treacle like “Best Thing I Never Had” into a quality pop ballad. All the singles are excellent, from the Sam Cooke-riffing ballad “1+1” to the hyper-charged family values jam “Countdown.” And the deep cuts present varied interpretations of popular R&B, from the unrequited belting of “I Care” to the breezy, ’80s Whitney groove of “Love On Top.” All of them work except for “Party,” a half-finished-sounding summer jam that relies way too much on Kanye’s worst couplet ever: “You a bad girl and your friend’s bad too/We got the swag sauce, we’re drippin’ Swagu.” Luckily, the rest of 4 is so indelible, you can just hum one of its choruses and pretend that you didn’t just hear an endorsement for the most disgusting thing in the grocery store.

11. The Cars – Move Like This

When a game-changing classic rock band decides to get back together these days, it’s to make bank on a tour, where they play their most famous record front to back and avoid new material like the plague. So when The Cars reunited in 2010, it was refreshing, and more than a bit ballsy, that they jumped right into the studio. Of course, it’s easier to respect a choice when the results are so great. Move Like This opens with “Blue Tip,” which picks up where the band left off, fusing synthesizer earworms with rock guitars and Ocasek sing-speak to create an off-kilter pop chestnut. “It’s Late” and “Sad Song” show that they haven’t forgotten the “Drive” ballad formula either. You could call it a time capsule, but these lovingly crafted synth-pop songs just happen to fit snugly in today’s ’80s-obsessed musical landscape. Move Like This should make us reassess our rock dinosaurs – shouldn’t they still have the urge to create? Isn’t that the least we should expect from them? Which means the next time Roger Waters or The Police ask you to drop $150 to see them trot out the oldies, it’s OK to say, “No, I deserve more from you guys.”

10. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons

Band names are by no means crucial to an artist’s success (Radiohead’s a pretty awful one when you think about it). But Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye has come up with a moniker that adds even more depth to the codeine-addled bump n’ grind R&B that’s his stock in trade. On his debut mixtape as The Weeknd, Tesfaye paints explicit pictures of twisted Friday and Saturday nights, with hazy melodies and underwater drum machines to remind us that every bout of wee-hour debauchery has its aftermath. “You wanna be high for this,” Tesfaye assures us on the opening cut. Don’t trust him, though. House Of Balloons is enough of an altered state on its own. A party album for the id with arrangements that swoon like the morning after, this is a gateway drug to one of the most compelling new artists of 2011.

9. Lil B – I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

Upon hearing that Lil B was releasing an album called I’m Gay, you had to wonder if he was setting himself up for the same backlash that Sasha Baron Cohen experienced with Bruno. Would this attempt at exposing homophobia be seen as kind of homophobic itself? One listen to the record puts those concerns to rest. A concept album it’s not – the title isn’t mentioned lyrically. But it does fit Lil B’s “love everything, make cheddar” philosophy, which he elucidates in simple, straightforward couplets (e.g. “Karma is real/And you gotta love it”). There’s plenty of materialism here, but it’s tinged with a sense of gratitude. Not to mention songs like “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber,” which pleads for fair pay for plumbers. The sample choices line up perfectly with this P.M. Dawn-meets-Cash Money aesthetic – interpolated soul ballads keep things grounded, and the Spirited Away-sampling cut “Gon Be Okay” beautifully overdoses on positivity. As an antidote to hate-fueled rap, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) doesn’t just do its title justice – it transcends it.

8. Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy

It was a banner year for Beach Boys lovers, thanks to the revelatory Smile Sessions box set and a Brian Wilson album of Disney covers (although I admit I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the latter. Sounds like it could be OK, but I fear a tire fire). Then there was Shugo Tokumaru’s Port Entropy, a ingenious and eccentric slab of sunshine pop that’s a direct descendant of Wilson’s and Van Dyke Parks’ most famous creations. Melodies runneth over here, from the children’s choir mantra of “Tracking Elevator” to the psychedelic chorus of “Lahaha,” but Port Entropy would be just a nice record if it weren’t for its arrangements. Each cut has its own distinct personality, with the Japanese multi-instrumentalist digging through his toy trunk for a seemingly endless mix of interesting combinations. “Lahaha” is a magnificently twisted concoction of glockenspiel and flute; “Linne” a piano and trumpet ballad; “Malerina” a pizzicato reggae jam. So if The Smile Sessions has you thinking that they just don’t make records like they used to, Port Entropy is here to prove you wrong. You crusty old coot.

7. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva

When rappers try to give themselves their own colorful mythology, they’re playing with fire. For every Wu-Tang, there are a dozen Nastradamuses. Which makes Big K.R.I.T.’s debut mixtape all the more remarkable. With a name that stands for “King Remembered In Time” and an album title that he describes as a “movement” on its opening track, the Mississippi artist sets the bar sky high before he even gets his first 16 bars off. But Return Of 4Eva’s dreamy, Organized Noize-esque production and measured, introspective lyrics deserve such luxurious boasts. Whether he’s baiting naysayers on “Dreaming,” reminiscing about career struggles on the gorgeous “American Rapstar,” or describing the frightening allure of drug dealing on “Lions & Lambs,” there’s a hard-earned knowledge in K.R.I.T.’s voice that makes them all different paragraphs from the same essay. By the time you get to the record’s heartbreaking tour de force, “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” the movement’s got you whole.

6. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Even though the ’90s are far behind us, in 2011, the term “slacker” still dredges up visions of flannel and limp bangs. But before the record companies and film studios started telling us how cool slackers were, slackers were actually kind of cool. The way Bob Dylan lazily dropped those “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards, it seemed like the guy could’ve given a shit, and didn’t we love him all the more for it? It’s this image that comes to mind when I listen to Kurt Vile’s deceptively ramshackle Smoke Ring For My Halo. The man delivers every lyric of these stoner folk songs in a gentle mumble – from the sarcastic “Society Is My Friend” to the romantic “Baby’s Arms.” But instead of coming off like some half-assed bedroom album, SRFMH creates a compelling headspace. Vile’s slacker vocal stylings are likely a put-on; the guy could probably hit all the notes if he wanted to. But I say bring on the posturing – there’s something captivating about this singer who sounds like he doesn’t care if anybody hears him, who just wants to get some things off his chest and then go to bed. Something strangely and indisputably cool.

5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There was good reason to anticipate the release of PJ Harvey’s eighth album this year, a conceptual work about her homeland and the wars it fought during its centuries as a world superpower. Harvey’s last notable work was 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, another album about a specific place, New York City. But if you pardon the pun, Let England Shake blows Stories out of the water. This isn’t a collection of protest songs, or an allegory for specific conflicts in the modern world. It’s a record that gets right into the trenches, and the heads, of British troops throughout history. The language is harrowing, with descriptions of body parts hanging from trees sitting alongside strident patriotic cries, streaking them with regret. And while the music is understandably subdued, with Harvey’s signature dark chord changes leading the way, there’s also beauty to be appreciated, with the singer’s voice rising above the somber acoustics and digital ephemera of “England,” telling us about “the country that I love.” By the time you get to the gut-wrenching Gallipoli singalong “The Colour of the Earth,” the history lesson’s over. But the feeling lingers.

4. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Yes, Tom Waits is avant garde. His voice is a hyper-expressive growl. His fusion of raw Chicago blues and garbage can-bashing performance art is jaw-droppingly creative. Now that we’re getting close to the 30-year anniversary of Swordfishtrombones, the record that changed it all, it’s awfully easy to forget that before he became the bizarre, trend-bucking artiste, Waits was a loungey singer/songwriter, releasing piano-heavy, Edward Hopper paintings of records throughout the ’70s. Bad As Me, his 19th record, keeps the bar high in terms of legacy-worthy freakiness – especially the whacked-out boogie of “Get Lost,” which is Waits as psycho Elvis impersonator – but it also reminds us of the sensitive hotel bar crooner of old. “Kiss Me” is a crackling, “let’s spice up the marriage” time capsule of a ballad, a quiet, achingly sexy left turn after the screwy, anti-soulmate blues of the title track. And then there’s “New Year’s Eve,” which closes things with a gorgeous, drunken bout of nostalgia. When Waits breaks into “Auld Lang Syne,” you’re reminded of another old standard he knocked out of the park in 1976, “Waltzing Matilda.” Right then and there, it’s the best of both worlds.

3. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

In a year marked by politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we got an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

If PJ Harvey made the war movie of the year, then Bill Callahan made the western. On Apocalypse, his third solo effort under his own name instead of Smog, the singer-songwriter tells tales of cowboys sympathizing with their cattle, marriages dissolving in the dust of the prairie, and panoramic vistas that enchant the minds of men. But a traditional country album it’s not – meditative folk is Callahan’s bag, with arrangements that act as delicate foundations for his beautiful, mournful baritone. It’s circular, entrancing stuff, a cowboy Astral Weeks, an attempt to document how small our country can make us feel, and how proud. “It takes a strong/Breaks a strong mind,” Callahan sings about the American wilderness. “And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” He could be singing about his own record.

1. James Blake – James Blake

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

Honorable Mentions: Bon Iver – Bon Iver; Heidecker & Wood – Starting From NowhereLykke Li – Wounded Rhymes; My Morning Jacket – Circuital; Wilco, The Whole Love; Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage; Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

What’s In My Discman, August 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

As we get ready for a year’s worth of politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we get an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the mix of pseudo-feminism and rock star hedonism on “That’s My Bitch” just wasn’t thought through), but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

Check out “New Day”:

Queen – Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Everybody knows that Queen could do bombast better than anybody. But it doesn’t seem to be common knowledge that they could straight-up shred, probably because the unbridled adrenaline that fueled this, its third album, would take a back seat to grander production flourishes on later masterpieces. As a result, it might be the least polished record of the band’s oeuvre, and my favorite. Every aspect of the band’s personality is here in its rawest form – towering vocal harmonies, vaudevillian freakouts, proto-thrash exercises and earworm-infested pop gems. From the Moet & Chandon melody of “Killer Queen” to the muscular arena rock of “Tenement Funster,” the halcyon balladry of “Lily of the Valley” to the bloody-fingered metal of “Stone Cold Crazy,” Sheer Heart Attack proved that Queen could do it all, and do it better than your band.

Here’s the harrowing, record execs-are-the-devil rocker, “Flick of the Wrist”:

Tyrone Davis – “Can I Change My Mind” (1968)

This is an idyllic R&B confection that gives credence to that classic advice women get when they want to make a man interested – act like you could give a shit about him. Davis, a singer I hadn’t heard of until I stumbled across this song, shows that he should’ve been in the conversation alongside the Motown and Stax greats of the time. Over a clear-as-day guitar riff and some punchy horns, he gets every drop of regret out of the lyric, with an effortless delivery that’s firmly in the tradition of Davis’ Chicago soul forefather, Sam Cooke. “But y’all, the girl, she fooled me this time,” he sings, going on to explain his emotional discovery to us – he thought he wanted to leave his woman, but he just wanted to get a rise out of her. He’s unsuccessful, of course, which clears the way for the beautiful plea of the chorus.

Experience this sweet soul for yourself:

Top 20 Tracks of 2010

I wasn’t gonna do this list. But now I did it. You wanna fight about it?

20. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “In Pairs”

Life ain’t like Noah’s ark – human pairings are little more complicated. But this ragged little sing-a-long reminds you that it’s OK to smile, even if nobody’s there to see it.

19. M.I.A. – “XXXO”
This thunderous dose of electro-pop warns that bad sex leads to social media. M.I.A.’s narrator discovers that tweeted love notes are too easily tossed-off – just like those symbols for hugs and kisses.

18. The Body – “A Body”
A delicate choral passage reaches its crescendo, only to be mercilessly deconstructed, resulting in a 10-minute hurtle from heaven into hell.

17. Big Boi – “Shutterbugg”
Funky, buoyant and celebratory, Big Boi’s single didn’t just make for mandatory summer listening, it also showed that the talkbox might be about to give AutoTune a run for its money.

16. Eels – “Little Bird”
Nobody does melancholy quite like Eels. Here, their bandleader E is so hard up for affection, he bemoans his unrequited love to a bird that ho
ps onto his porch. How gorgeously pathetic.

15. Kanye West – “Runaway”
“You’ve been puttin’ up with my shit just way too long” – the closest thing to an apology you’re ever gonna get from a rock star.

14. She & Him – “I’m Gonna Make It Better”
Reassuring lyrics, floating on a bed of lightly twanging guitars. For fans of ’70s AM pop, it’s the cure for what ails you.

13. Vampire Weekend – “Diplomat’s Son”
I thought nostalgia trips resulted in some kind of sadness or regret. But when your memories are of lying around dressed in white, smoking joints with rich kids, they result in exhilarating synth-reggae songs.

12. The Roots – “Right On”
On a record about the power of positive attitudes, a beat that’ll make you feel invincible.

11. Rihanna – “What’s My Name”
How do you know you’re in love? When somebody gives you goosebumps, just by saying your name.

10. Sleigh Bells – “Crown on the Ground”
So. Damn. Loud.

9. Ke$ha – “Your Love is My Drug”
A melody that’s as tough to shake as lovesickness.

8. Jamey Johnson – “Heartache”
Heartache isn’t just a state of mind, it’s an evil entity. Johnson sings from the perspective of this grim reaper of relationships, breaking up everyone from caveman couples to Charles and Diana.

7. Janelle Monae – “Dance or Die”
Latin rhythms, undulating raps, soap opera organ – a lean, propulsive sonic assault unlike any other.

6. Antony & The Johnsons – “The Great White Ocean”
Spare, stunning chamber folk about family dynamics in the afterlife. Should be sung in church.

5. Gorillaz – “White Flag”
A Lebanese orchestra, a pair of imaginative British MCs, and Damon Albarn’s ever-expanding vision make for the most successfully eclectic track of 2010.

4. Bruno Mars – “Just the Way You Are”
The love song of the year, with a mighty catchy chorus to boot.

3. Cee Lo Green – “Fuck You”
The love child of “I Want You Back” and “Gold Digger,” brilliantly arranged and sung by the most expressive vocalist in R&B. Adorable.

2. Erykah Badu – “Window Seat”
An empowering anthem for both frustrated lovers and claustrophobic travelers, sung with the kind of quiet confidence we last heard on Baduizm.

1. Kanye West – “Monster”
The drums are huge, the personas even huger – a six-minute running time is barely enough to contain all the chest-beating rants and paranoid fantasies.
The year’s illest track, in both senses of the word.

Top 10 Albums of 2010

I done liked these here albums. I make list to share. Then I eat sandwich.

10. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
Last year, Phosphorescent released To Willie, a straightforward set of Willie Nelson covers. It stands to reason that fans who’d gotten hooked on the band’s cryptic dream-folk stylings might’ve had trouble connecting the dots. Which could very well be the inspiration for Here’s To Taking It Easy, an artful distillation of the two approaches that’s equal parts sweet, lazy country and deep, introspective indie rock. Bandleader Matthew Houck gives his ambitions a rain check here, opting for words and arrangements that sum up where he’s been – touring like crazy, destroying his relationships, then touring some more. The saloon-ready pedal steel and driving horns of “It’s Hard to be Humble” shows he’s not over his Willie obsession, while the haunting mantra “Hej, Me I’m Light” could be a Pride outtake. And “Los Angeles” closes things with a clear-headed swipe at our fame-obsessed culture – “Are they covering you up with affection now?/Are they giving you a lot of attention now?”

9. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
On This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem’s third straight slab of epic, confessional dance-pop, there’s much of what you’d expect – immersive walls of synths, cold-light-of-morning musings, and a thunderous beat or two. But there’s something new lurking in the impeccably produced weeds, a sense of tension that finds James Murphy writing some of his catchiest material, while simultaneously rebelling against the concept of pop. “You wanted a hit/But maybe we don’t do hits,” Murphy posits on one especially hook-filled tune, which he stretches to a 9-minute running time, stacking ironies and keyboard sounds with equal fervor.

8. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. Two: Return of the Ankh
On her fifth album, and second installment of the awkwardly named “New Amerykah” series, Erykah Badu gives us her most commercially viable music of the last decade or so. That’s not to say it’s the kind of glossy, over-emoted sludge that passes for R&B these days – Return of the Ankh goes down easy, but it’s because Badu and her band make these breezy soul grooves look easy. A significant shift from the challenging sprawl of New Amerykah, Pt. One: 4th World War, Ankh begs to be pulled out during the summer months. With the airy funk of “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)” and the slow-burning ode to solo travel “Window Seat” drifting from your speakers, you’ll almost be able to smell the barbecue.

7. Robert Plant – Band of Joy
After the initial shock of Raising Sand, on which Robert Plant sang with a tenderness and clarity he’d only hinted at in the past, it made complete sense that this artist would spend the twilight of his career as a sublime interpreter of classic Americana. Nobody ripped off American blues masters quite as brazenly as Led Zeppelin, and some of Plant’s best work with that band was on its occasional forays into folk and country. With Band of Joy, the legend puts an exclamation point on this revelation, as Plant assembled a Grand Ole Opry-worthy band to help him take on traditional folk tunes and modern numbers by artists like Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt. The result is earthier than Raising Sand, with less focus on harmony and more of a live in the studio feel. Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful – whether it’s among the echo chamber guitars of “Silver Rider” or the ominous acoustics of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” Plant’s voice enchants.

6. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Ever since Damon Albarn’s band of animated hipsters released its self-titled debut in 2001, Gorillaz has felt like a lark, a fun side project that let the artist scratch his hip hop itch. But listening to the wildly eclectic sounds, indelible melodies and post-apocalyptic concepts of Plastic Beach, it’s clear that Albarn has realized that his “other” band is the one he was meant to lead. On paper, the formula is pretty much the same as the first two Gorillaz discs – get a crackerjack group of guest artists and let them run wild over chilled-out electronic grooves. But for the first time, the songs are as adventurous as the guests, full of moody Britpop atmospheres, burbling funk jams, aching bursts of R&B and full-on orchestral bombast. “White Flag” acts as a microcosm of it all, combining the hypnotic Eastern melodies of The Lebanese National Orchestra with bursts of playful electro-rap. And when Albarn follows it up with the post-punk ballad “Rhinestone Eyes,” singing about how his love’s peepers glitter “like factories far away,” it becomes clear that there’s nothing at all cartoonish about these Gorillaz anymore.

5. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Oh, it could be so easy to blow off Vampire Weekend, what with their songs about aristocrats, diplomat’s sons and girlfriends’ trust funds. But perhaps because of its unabashed approach to upper crust tropes, Contra possesses a freshness that only a hater wouldn’t acknowledge. Of course, ambitious, effervescent pop hooks make any hyper-educated rich kid lament go down easier, and Contra is stuffed to the gills with ’em, from the falsetto-laden Afro-pop of “White Sky” to the M.I.A.-sampling electro-ska of “Diplomat’s Son.” And tell me one band that’s doing anything like “California English,” where singer Ezra Koenig ponders the deeper implications of using Tom’s of Maine toothpaste in an AutoTune-corrected voice. These kids might be spoiled, but their art is built to last.

4. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
A double album from the guy who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”? Sounds like something whipped up by the Satan of my own personal hell. But there ain’t nothing trendy or empty-headed about The Guitar Song, a robust collection of songs with roots in traditional country and production values that gleam like an oil soap-polished bar. Don’t be fooled by the record’s “Black” and “White” subtitles, because Johnson’s interested in grey areas. Whether he’s singing about heartbreak, the plight of the modern farmer or breezy afternoons on porch swings, there’s either a resiliency behind the sadness, or the sense that real happiness is earned. Through it all, the pedal steel licks soar and mourn, the pianos dance in dark corners, and every word is soaked in Johnson’s elegant, commanding baritone.

3. Janelle Monaé – The ArchAndroid
An over-the-top cinematic intro segues into an Outkast-meets-Gloria Estefan barnburner, which segues into an equally propulsive dance floor cut on which the vocalist confesses she’s “shaking like a schizo” over sped-up jazz guitar licks. These are the first three tracks of
The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monaé’s concept album about cyborg clones, time travel and futuristic psycho wards. It was the most exciting beginning to an album in 2010, setting a standard that would be tough for Aretha to match for 18 tracks. But Monaé almost does it, thanks to an unflagging creative spirit – from the Willy Wonka strings of “Neon Valley Street” to the English folk melodies of “57821” and the light-as-air romantic pop of “Oh, Maker,” The ArchAndroid is a Baskin Robbins of sonic imagination. If it wasn’t for the out-of-place Of Montreal collaboration “Make the Bus,” we’d be talking perfection here. Still, this is a dizzying accomplishment, one that puts Monaé on a short list of artists who can push the envelope and cross over in the same supercharged breath.

2. The Roots  – How I Got Over
We’ve always been able to count on The Roots to deliver top-notch, head-bobbing grooves and smart, fiery verses – they’re probably the most consistent outfit in hip-hop. But with How I Got Over, these guys haven’t just kept things fresh; they’ve upped the ante. A powerful, nuanced concept album about overcoming all that life can hurl your way, it thrills on first listen, and only becomes more rewarding the more you hit repeat. By masterfully blending their two main stylistic approaches – warm, Native Tongues beats and chilling, confrontational synth-funk – the band is able to paint a thoroughly convincing picture of self-doubt evolving into self-confidence. Black Thought rattles off a laundry list of natural disasters over the gloomy piano chords of “Walk Alone,” but by “The Day,” guest vocalist Blu is looking in the mirror and realizing, “I should start living today.” Moving stuff, in both senses of the word.

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The American Dream ain’t what it used to be. It’s more about power than picket fences. But I’ll stop trying to define it, because Kanye West has created the ultimate tutorial – his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In lesser hands, this treatise on the glories and pitfalls of being crazy successful could sound like a Republican Party platform speech. But West’s combination of honesty, outrage, ego and phenomenal wordplay transforms the concept into an irresistible Jekyll and Hyde tale. He describes himself as a superhero and a monster, preaching that “no one man should have all that power” on his first single, while boasting “my presence is a present, kiss my ass” on his second. He’s never been this emotional on record, but he doesn’t let it stop him from writing battle-ready rhymes – for all of the wild psychoanalysis going on, one of the biggest highlights is a Family Matters reference (“Too many Urkels on your team/that’s why you’re wins low”). Musically, MBDTF is just as compellingly schizo. “Dark Fantasy’s” gospel chorus asks “can we get much higher?” Rocky soundtrack-ready synth horns propel “All of the Lights.” The slinky, Smokey Robinson-sampling “Devil in a New Dress” hearkens back to the College Dropout formula. “Monster” is an old-school rap feast, packed with top-notch guests (including a world-beating verse from Nicki Minaj). The result? The most brilliantly produced, fully realized musical vision of 2010. For hip-hop fanatics, casual pop listeners and party animals alike, it’s a garden of earthly delights – lush, intoxicating, and laced with nightmares.

Honorable Mentions: She & Him – Volume Two; Das Racist – Sit Down, Man; Sleigh Bells – Treats; M.I.A. –Maya; Drake – Thank Me Later; Elvis Costello – National Ransom; Of Montreal – False Priest