As much as I enjoy geeking out by building best-of album lists, song lists are infinity more interesting. A song is a high-wire act: one slip, one faulty step and you’ve got a mess on your hands. Albums, almost by their very nature, are more forgiving: great albums still have awful, awful songs. So a list of the best songs of a period tend to be more inclusive of different types of talent. Quite a few of these bands here don’t have enough of it to sustain an album (yet?), but they have enough to absolutely crush one. So, culled together with scraps of time over the past week and crafted with a fair amount of thought and consideration, I humbly submit 40 songs that have it pretty well locked down this year. Comments, omissions, counter-arguments all certainly welcome.
40. “Swim (to Reach the End)” Surfer Blood // This thing hits its high point quickly: the first 6 seconds of Surfer’s Blood’s devastatingly catchy first single are so monstrously large that it threatens to topple the entire structure of the song. The band manages to keep that moment propped up with an even larger chorus.
39. “Brass Park (Surround)” Larry Gus // Cuts from beat records are generally not this effecting. They’re usually so cerebral that it’s nearly impossible to have an emotional reaction. But Larry Gus’ “Brass Park,” which is a perfect marriage of funky and mournful, strikes a neat balance between craft and heart.
38. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” The National // Of course, it’s Matt Berninger’s elegant baritone that gets all the press, but one of the key reasons that The National find themselves in the position they’re in is because of Brian Devendorf’s drumming. The song’s beat is so insistent, yet so light to the touch. Only with such confident backing does Berninger’s voice have that heartbreaking ring to it.
37. “I Hope You Die” Wye Oak // The song is a pocket symphony of delay-pedals and smoldering anger. “I Hope You Die,” for all of its accomplishments in composition, is nonetheless a devastatingly personal take on “Masters of War.”
36. “Pirate Key” Male Bonding // For a song that’s more poetic than it leads on, I’m surprised that I haven’t dismissed Male Bonding as either naive or fundamentally disingenuous. But the fact of the matter is that the key lyric in the song (“I see myself in color/I see myself in light”) never comes across as anything other than plainly anthemic.
35. “Beautiful People” The Books // The Books certainly aren’t branching out with the first song from their forthcoming album This Way Out, but the unconverted among the masses are unlikely to be swayed by this work of modest genius.
34. “Born Free” M.I.A. // Unfortunately, most of the press surrounding M.I.A.’s new album is going to surround her bullshit antics, but at least before the inevitable backlash we have “Born Free,” a righteously pissed off anthem.
33. “Thieves” She & Him // In the face of insurmountable odds, Deschanel and War have convinced me that they can write something more substantial than fleeting pop ephemera. “Thieves” showcases Deschanel’s most convincing and moving vocal performance to date, and Ward’s lush instrumentation beautifully illustrates this elegantly sad song.
32. “On a Ride” Dignan Porch // This song is 90 seconds of pure bummed-out bliss. Dignan Porch doesn’t pack much into the song because they understand the power of a light touch: there’s a good chance that Arcade Fire doesn’t write anything this anthemic on their next album.
31. “Numbers Don’t Lie” The Mynabirds // Lead Mynabird Laura Burhenn paints with a nuanced brush: “If you want to be right/I will let you be right/You know that the numbers don’t lie/Two wrongs will not make it right.” She sounds contentious here; she wants the fight to end so she’s willing to compromise but she can’t help but pointing out one final time that she’s right. This woman is no supplicant to the whims of love.
30. “On Giving Up” High Places // While High Places’ second album doesn’t entirely hold up in my opinion, the bleak disco of “On Giving Up” is certainly the highlight. The house-inspired suicide letter ends with the blankly unaffected Pearson working to convince herself that “it’s all gone/it’s all gone/it’s all gone/tonight is going to be the night.” A chilling sentiment from the unlikeliest of sources.
29. “It’s All Over” Woozy Viper // When I first heard this back in February, I compared it to Lou Reed’s work on Loaded. And while that might seem a tad overblown, I stand behind my statement. This is simple without being oversimplified, emotionally direct without being cruel.
28. “Go Long” Joanna Newsom // Picking a single song to summarize Newsom’s towering Have One on Me is a fool’s errand. Some of the more pop-oriented cuts are more immediately appealing, but no one song showcases Newsom’s growth. Gone are the squeaky-voiced milk-maid tales of yore spun completely of harps and arcane language. While Newsom still deals in symbolic webs, the effect is nonetheless direct: “Go long! Go long/Right over the edge of the earth!/You have been wronged/Tore up since birth/You have done harm/Other have done worse.”
27. “The Splendour” Pantha du Prince // Of course, “Stick to My Side,” which features Panda Bear, has been receiving the most attention. But, it’s “The Splendour” that really shows off why Hendrick Weber is among the most vital and interesting producers around.
26. “Sucker Punch” Coma Cinema // Nicely captures the catharsis of a necessary breakup in a charming song that manages to a) retain the singer’s integrity and b) wounds the intended recipient. A rare feat.
25. “Nightcall” Kavinsky // A demonic robot calls a woman up for a demonic and robotic booty call. Gets rebuffed, belittled.
24. “Give Up the Ghost” Thom Yorke // I’m getting much better at not getting so worked up over Thom Yorke’s every move, but when this baby showed up on a couple of months ago, I fell off the wagon. And who wouldn’t have? At a solo show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange (?), Yorke played a handful of new songs but this was clearly the standout, one of the most achingly pretty songs the man has ever recorded.
23. “Tightrope” Jannelle Monae // People stopped making soul records worth paying much attention to a long time ago. Instead, the whole concept of soul morphed into (ugh) neo-soul. But Monae, a supremely talented performer and dazzling dancer, has composed a song that sounds reverentially old and brazenly new. Why this song hasn’t become 2010′s “Hey Ya” is beyond me. Seriously, why isn’t this the most popular song in America? My fellow citizens call your fucking radio stations and correct this error.
22. “Youtube” Happy Family // A modest little affair that perhaps borrows too heavily from Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. Regardless, this still feels like an original composition: a blissed-out daydream that floats by a dozen times before you realize that you’ve had your hand on the repeat button for half an hour.
21. “Lifted” Lemonade // A playful and beach-y update of The Cure complete with bubbling water, fat synths, and steel drums. Desperation never sounded so sunny.
20. “Easy” Pure Ecstasy // The cover of the “Easy” 7” is patently misleading: a washed out photograph captures an attractive girl romps on the beach while the sandy wind whips around her. The song itself, though, is a painfully honest suicide letter. The titular sentiment is frightening: suicide is as painless and easy as a day at the beach.
19. “Whiplash” Sunglasses // On “Whiplash,” the Sunglasses comes off like an electronic Johnny Mercer, pulling you along in a neon horse-drawn carriage of a song. It sounds sweet and goofy (that slide whistle!) and generous and big-hearted. This thing sounds like its constructed entirely of good vibes and pleasant dreams and summertime crushes.
18. “Manifest Destiny” Zola Jesus // The music couldn’t possibly be darker. The whole thing sounds like a black hole opening up in the middle of the sky, sucking everything in sight into its swirling maw. And Nina Roza Danilova, she of Zola Jesus, is too busy declaring her love to someone to be bothered. Of course, she has to make a tremendous noise of her own to compete and damn it all if she doesn’t succeed mightily.
17. “Rhinestone Eyes” Gorillaz // “Rhinestone Eyes” represents my favorite side of Damon Albarn. To me, he’s always sounding best when he sounds down-and-out. Bleary-eyed and scruffy here, Albarn makes a song ostensibly about environmental degradation sound like a anthem of the lovelorn and broken-hearted. And considering that BP is fucking the Gulf in increasingly insidious ways everyday, it’s not hard to see the stretch Albarn is reaching for. Also, it doesn’t hurt that this song has the best synth line and vocal sample of the year hands down.
16. “Hots for Teacher” Coasting // For a song about the unbridled horniness of teenagers, “Hots for Teacher” is surprisingly tender. The duo behind Coasting clearly understand the teenage chemicals that screw us up hard between 13 and 20 frequently confuse lust and longing. The wordless roar of the chorus reeks of desperation and confusion and sincerity and acne cream.
15. “Endless Spring” Houses // Along with Happy Family’s gorgeous “Youtube,” “Endless Spring” might be the most conventionally beautiful song I’ve heard all year. Beyond that, there’s nothing that needs to be said in defense of this beauty.
14. “Who Makes Your Money?” Spoon // The best cut on Transference finds Britt Daniels doing his white boy soul impression. For all my personal gripping about this band’s insistence on playing it safe, I’m always happy to have the best soul band alive releasing expansive stunners like this.
13. “Angel Echoes” Four Tet // The ghost in the machine of electronic music was discovered a long time ago, but it took Four Tet’s Kiernan Hebden to make it sing. On “Angel Echoes,” he manages to coax beautiful fragments out of his infernal machines with the gentle thump of a glassy beat.
12. “Pure” Blackbird Blackbird // I had a hell of a time deciding between “Pure” and “Happy High.” While “Happy Hight” might be more immediately addictive, “Pure” is ultimately more rewarding. The song is among the most blissful 2 minutes of pop I’ve heard all year. Mickey Sanders is able to hit every pleasure receptor in the deepest parts of my reptile brain. And like some lobotomized lab rat, I keep coming back for more.
11. “In the Direction of the Moon” Wolf Parade // Full disclosure: I think that Spencer Krug is the best lyricist in rock right now. His declaration of love, then, amid the thundering drums of “In the Direction of the Moon” is right in my wheelhouse: “I am a wall of sand and stone/And you, you’re some kind of ivy I’m trying to hold as best as I can.” Only a crank arch-lover like Krug could honestly get away with a line like that.
10. “Power” Kanye West // The Ego is back in top form. The Ego’s always best, of course, when he’s talking about himself. But instead of flossin about his credit line and clothing line, he utters a declarative sentence that scans more like a question that demands an answer: “No one man should have all that power.” It’s a statement that no other hip hop star of note could even conceptualize because no one has such a complex relationship with his celebrity, especially one that opens to the possibilities of suicide.
9. “The Mermaid Parade” Phosphorescent // This song contains the best lyric of the year: “Goddamit, Amanda/Oh, goddimit all” While it doesn’t look like much, to hear Houck throw his hands up in frustration with himself and with his soon-to-be ex-wife is to be privy to a disarmingly human moment. At once the strongest and most fragile song Houck has ever composed.
8. “Shutterbugg” Big Boi // I’ll go ahead and call it right now. Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is going to be the best hip hop album of the year. And the trunk-rattling funk of “Shutterbugg” will be the centerpiece of the album. Care to wager?
7. “California English Pt 2″ Vampire Weekend // “California English Pt 2″ was a glaring omission from Contra. Besides being the most exciting experiment Vampire Weekend has ever released, the song is a very necessary compliment to “California English.” Like most VW songs, these are class-conscious tales that seek to locate emotions in the most conspicuous of objective correlatives. For “California English,” it’s the modern piety of natural toothpaste, while “California English Pt2 2″ locates a deep pathos in a pair of fashionably ripped jeans. These two objects represent nothing less than the way that Ezra Koenig’s characters interact with the world. At once, these objects shore up identity for the characters and represent points of entry for the outside world. It also doesn’t hurt that these are two of the most catchy and effecting songs VW has ever written.
6. “Stay Close” Delorean // If you had told me 15 years ago that I would grow to appreciate the contribution of Balearic beat (i.e. Ibiza House), I would have told you that nothing would ever be as important to me as Pavement or Dinosaur Jr. But here I am, 15 years later, eyes nearly filled with tears at the hearty generosity of Delorean’s “Stay Close.” Like most house music, the song starts big and only gets bigger over time. While the song never stoops to slam you with a four-on-the-floor bass, that indelible vocal sample practically fuses with the piano and the synthesizers to create the most unabashedly addictive songs of the year.
5. “Silver Soul” Beach House // On an album brimming with lovely songs about the pain of getting too close to another human being, it’s hard to believe that one shimmers more brightly than the others. But “Silver Soul” distills Teen Dream down to its essential character: the woozy instrumentation of electric pianos and drum machines swaddle Victoria Legrand’s fragile stories of love. And it’s on “Silver Soul” that Legrand trots out her best vocal performance. The breathy quality of her voice suggests a paradoxical strength: she is really struggling to give voice to something unspeakable. The refrain says it all: “It is happening again.” This is a woman who is afraid of the disappointingly cyclical nature of affairs of the heart.
4. “Daisy” Fang Island // A couple of months ago, partly on a challenge issued by my father, I started running. I figured out pretty early that Fang Island’s “Dasiy” was the best running partner I’ll ever had. When those opening oohs and aahs break out into a galloping drum beat and an irresistible chant, I start running harder, faster, better. I correct my posture, normalize my breathing, take more ambitious strides. I’ve never bought arguments about art’s utilitarian value; I have a hard time that art improves people through simple exposure. But I’ll be damned if I’m not a better runner because of “Daisy.”
3. “Decisions” How to Dress Well // It’s difficult to say exactly what has captured me about “Decisions,” but I suspect that it’s that simple old combination of the best sounds in the best order. Everything from the mournful thump of the bass drum to the feather light ethereal synths works to give the song a sense of hopeless melancholy and new-found contentedness. The emotional arc of the song is a steep climb from the funeral procession that opens the song and the well-earned swelling of heartstrings at the end. But it’s this almost narrative arc, where a singer starts one place and ends in a completely different place, that makes the song such an impressive feat. In under 3 minutes, HTDW have given you the entire spectrum of heartbreak, from lassitude and exhaustion to contentment and lonely joy.
2. “A Flower in a Glove” Frog Eyes // The towering “Bushels” from 2007′s Tears of the Valedictorian is the perfect companion piece to “A Flower in a Glove.” “Bushels” began on uncertain footing, nearly descending into schizophrenic chaos, and ended with Carey Mercer finding his purpose: “I was a singer, and I sang in your home.” “A Flower in a Glove” finds Mercer mirroring “Bushels” perfectly: the opening minutes, while filled with fiery rage, are insistent and carefully guided. It’s only later that Mercer loses the plot. After a mid-song catharsis, the song falls apart into a wasteland of reverberated wails and squalls. And watching Mercer chase a song is not unlike watching Lear follow his own story on a stormy heath.
1. “Dance Yrself Clean” LCD Soundsystem // James Murphy is living proof of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. His cultural commentary is both unsparing and humorous, and the precision of his emotional intelligence is off the radar. But it is his ability to combine these hyperactive traits into a single composition that makes Murphy easily one of the best two or three songwriters in a generation. And along with flat-out masterpieces like “All My Friends” and “Losing My Edge” and “Someone Great,” Murphy has released another stellar addition to that list. Murphy’s best songs always deal with the horror of aging, and “Dance Yrself Clean” doesn’t strike out in any new territory: “Every night’s a different story/It’s a thirty car pile-up with you/Everybody’s getting younger/It’s an end of an era, it’s true.” But instead of being a lament, “Dance Yrself Clean” is something much more interesting: a plea, a bargain, a chance to stall the inevitable. And while in others’ hands this would come off as pathetic, Murphy makes it moving and triumphant and sad and exhilarating and frighteningly necessary.