Since a collegiate winter break is accompanied by so many 4:15 p.m. sunsets and lack of productive work, I thought it’d be appropriate to include my top 20 tracks of the year in addition to my top 10 albums. This list is for tracks 20-11, look for 10-1 in the coming days.
Perhaps it makes sense that the creator of this overwhelmingly unique track is a man with an overwhelmingly unique life. Alex Zhang Hungtai was born in Taiwan, but spent a great deal of his childhood and adult life traveling Canada and the rest of Asia. Keeping that in mind, try to listen to this song and not feel like you’re in a saloon from the 1940’s American Midwest. Hungtai exceeds the 80’s nostalgia so popular in music today, and goes back almost half a century more for the source of his inspiration: a poorly recorded, droopy piano line repeats back and forth as Hungtai croons in his deep tenor, as if at any moment John Wayne will bust in with a pair of pistols.
Swedish star Lykke Li released the beautifully haunted pop album Wounded Rhymes early in the year, and the clear highlight is the up-tempo anthem “Get Some.” Heavy toms pound out the beat as Li teases, “Like a shotgun, I can’t be outdone. I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some.” It’s a song that asserts her power by flaunting her erotic charm, all behind a classically catchy chorus that wraps up the track in a neat and perfectly dark bundle.
Maybe it’s a testament to Cut Copy’s greatness that although their third album—released in February of this year—was the weakest in their discography, it still produced what was easily one of the best dance tracks of the year. The first song on Zonoscope crescendos quickly from the wavy keyboards that mark the first sounds out of the gate; Dan Whitford starts slow, much like the instrumentation, but by the four-minute mark shimmering guitars and synths explode and Whitford wails the chorus over and over again—just enough until he’s made it perfectly clear that a party has begun.
Although virtually all of John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves sounds unsettlingly similar to Ariel Pink’s Before Today of last year (it would make sense since they’ve worked together in the past), the best track on the so-so album is the definitively unique closer “Believer.” Maus’ vocals are heavily reverbed and are almost completely drowned out by the ground bass and dense keyboards, but everything swirls together to create a wistful maelstrom of sounds that’s perfectly evocative of the album’s dark and ghostly artwork.
I always feel like it’s risky for a band to choose a song featuring a non-member to be the lead single off an album; if it ends up gaining popularity, it’ll be a disappointment to play live if that featured musician isn’t there to perform it with the band. Nevertheless, the almost exclusively instrumental Battles selected “Ice Cream” to be the single off of this year’s Gloss Drop. The hyper-excited keyboard riff created by Ian Williams fits in perfectly with the goofy, unintelligible singing of Aguayo and seamlessly encapsulates the fun and brightness that Battles have a built a reputation for over their career.
Although most of the praise from GGD’s Eye Contact has been directed towards the eleven-minute “Glass Jar,” “MindKilla” is really the track that deserves the most hype for succinctly hitting all of the aspects of what makes the band great in a slim 5:29. The track begins tentatively, with a thumping bass drum, a glittering but conservative keyboard, and Lizzi Bougastos seemingly invocating her muse. Soon after synths swell, Bougastos recites nursery rhymes, and the song crescendos two times—once to a filthy breakdown at the midpoint, and again at the track’s end when everything jumps off a cliff with 32 seconds remaining, leaving only the murmuring instrumental remnants of before. There’s so much oddness being thrown into the song at once that it transcends analysis; it’s something that should only be enjoyed jumping back and forth in your room.
Much like the previous track, critical acclaim has been mostly misguided in donning James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” as the standout track, when in fact it’s really an exact cover of his dad’s band’s “Where to Turn.” Blake is being touted as a pioneering figure for the future of pop music, and “Lindisfarne” is at once original and indicative of that statement. The first part of the two-movement suite begins only with Blake’s transformed voice woefully serenading, “Beacon don’t fly too high.” By the second part of the track, Blake adds sparse accompaniment—a warbly guitar and lightly used drum machine add grace notes to the melody established in the track’s first movement, but create a brilliant new texture that makes the listener appreciate the same phrase in entirely new way. Blake’s innovation will be an incredibly exciting thing to observe as he reaches his mid 20’s.
“Otis” is probably not even the best track on mega-collab of the year Watch the Throne, but the audacity behind the lyrics and the artists who wrote them make it one of the most culturally significant tracks this decade. In a time where the economy is so bad that Time’s Person of the Year is “the protester,” Yeezy and Jigga began selling “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts that in no way benefited the Occupy Movement, dropped an unthinkable amount of money to sample “Try a Little Tenderness,” and shot the video for the song consisting of driving around in a modified Maybach with four girls in the back seat. The verses only contain incessant rhymes about their wealth and un-touchability, and it makes for what is maybe the most simultaneously sleazy and enjoyable track of this century.
If a song can be both Grammy-nominated for “Record of the year” and number two on Pitchfork’s songs of the year (two of the most separate spheres of music criticism today), there must be something special going on. Bon Iver creates what actually might be the most beautifully poignant track of the year; oscillating arpeggios and slide guitars shift in dynamics as Justin Vernon dejectedly declares “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” Saxophones pop up intermittently, but they’re too defeated to make a sizeable impression in the song’s vastness, a clever metaphor for the singer’s insignificance in the context of the song’s narrative. Through all this melancholy, hope sprouts in the subtle drum rolls and Vernon’s restrained delight in repeating “And I could see for miles, miles, miles.”
“What’s the Bizness, Yeah!” Merrill Garbus shrieks, completely unaccompanied, near the end the end of the first single off of this year’s w h o k i l l. Immediately, saxophones burst in, cymbals crash, snares are smacked, and Garbus continues to wail up a chromatic scale. The song was building to this moment—not to say the previous 3:40 wasn’t an altogether joyous experience. From the opening seconds of Garbus’ brilliantly looped/layered vocals to the ukulele-dominant choruses, the songstress knows how to manufacture a track with non-stop fun. “Bizness” never stays stagnant and develops back-breakingly for the duration of the of the record—the perfect centerpiece to the delightfully eccentric album that should launch Garbus to stardom.