I won’t pretend that this is any sort of canonical list of the best songs of 2010, or even the best alternative songs of 2010; it’s merely a list of the best songs I heard, songs I liked and would recommend if your musical taste echoes mine at all. Feel free to throw your own suggestions in the comments below, as well as the usual complaints about how I’m biased against The National.
I limited the list to songs released in the 2010 calendar year, so Phoenix, which dominated alternative radio all spring and summer, doesn’t qualify, since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out in May of 2009.
Linked song titles go to videos; links to amazon or iTunes to purchase come after the title.
12. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Mighty Sparrow. (amazon/iTunes) When the cafe doors exploded, I … ran for cover. OK, the lyrics are a little peculiar, but I like the straight-edge post-punk energy behind this song even if Leo does sound like he’s on the verge of laryngitis.
11. Cut Copy – “Where I’m Going.” (Still a free download at Cut Copy’s site.) Straight-up early Britpop from an Australian band, with a shout-along chorus and the sort of neutered harmonies in the vocals that characterized a lot of lesser acts in the earlier movement. I suppose if I was truly playing music critic I’d either praise the song’s hook-laden simplicity or criticize its derivative music and tired lyrics. Whatever I think, I can’t credibly claim that I didn’t like the song. A lot.
10. Ra Ra Riot – “Boy.” (amazon/iTunes) I’m pulling for these guys even though I found their album pretty uneven, with “Boy” the high point. We don’t see enough bands trying to do something so different while still staying within the rough confines of alternative music – you can hear strong new wave influences here – and their use of unusual song structures and string instruments does them credit.
9. Limousines – “Internet Killed the Video Star.” (iTunes) I could see this song crossing over to the pop charts because the chorus is so catchy, and for a supposedly “experimental” band they’ve put out a very straightforward song here that merges rock and electronic elements in a song that purports to defend the guitar against the computer. By the way, kids – that drum machine ain’t got no soul.
8. Sleigh Bells – “Rill Rill.” (amazon/iTunes) The rest of the Sleigh Bells album is unlistenable, but this song’s relentless, almost sing-songy lyric hooked me from first listen and brought back memories of the 1990s trip-hop anthem “6 Underground.” Besides, there’s something enchanting about the (presumed) teenage-girl narrator breaking with stereotype when she answers the question, “Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces?” with the defiant, “What about them? I’m all about them.”
7. Tame Impala – “Solitude Is Bliss.” (iTunes) Another album that didn’t quite live up to the first track I heard, but this psychedelic, stop-and-start ode to living inside one’s own head reached out of the radio and grabbed me. The bizarre video is inventive given what appears to have been a very low budget.
6. Belle & Sebastian – “Ghost of Rockschool.” (amazon/iTunes) A mournful, mystical track from the underrated and understated Scottish masters of ironic rock, not their best song (that would be the incomparable “The Boy With The Arab Strap”) but the best on their newest album. The hint of brass brought me back to one of my favorite bands of the ’90s, Animals that Swim, who never quite found an audience for their albums of original tracks that sounded like drinking songs.
5. Dead Weather – “Blue Blood Blues .” (amazon/iTunes) I was surprised to read that Jack White plays drums for Dead Weather when the meaty, heavy guitar riffs on this song sound so much like his recent style. It’s sludgy, almost Kyuss-esque with better production and cleaner lines.
4. Arcade Fire – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” (amazon/iTunes) On an album about our sprawling suburban society, where culture is found in the yogurt section of the local grocery store, “Sprawl II” provides the most withering vocal attack over a very new wave-influenced track laced with synthesizers. I don’t love the singer’s breathy, thin voice, but you can always drown that out by singing along.
3. Broken Bells – “The High Road.” (amazon/iTunes) So Danger Mouse is good for one knockout song per collaborative album, right? This one, with James Mercer from the Shins, features a two-tiered vocal married to a split instrumental track, with an acoustic guitar line behind the laconic verse switching to trip-hoppy electronic sounds as Mercer brings his voice up an octave. This also spawned my first (and still only) YTMND effort.
2. Arcade Fire – “City With No Children.” (amazon/iTunes) From the start, it was my favorite track on one of the best rock albums I’ve ever purchased, and while I know many of you disagree, I think that’s more a function of how strong and deep The Suburbs is; if half the songs on this list came from that album I doubt I would have received many complaints. The absence of typical percussion and the muted sound of the lead guitar in “City” paint a desolate backdrop for lyrics describing not just alienation but self-reflection and ecological decay.
1. Mumford & Sons – “Little Lion Man.” (amazon/iTunes) A perfect marriage of alt-rock/emo angst and English folk music, with a perfectly deployed four-letter word of Anglo-Saxon origin (six letters as a past participle). The entire album (just $5 at amazon yet again) is a marvel, from “Winter Winds” to “White Blank Page” to “Roll Away Your Stone,” but “Little Lion Man” had the strongest hook, and its crossover on to American radio and eventual gold certification was one of the biggest stories in music this year.