December 18, 2009
Here is the much-anticipated conclusion to my top 50 songs of 2009 list (if you haven’t already, take a look at the first 25 and read the foreword/ground rules). These are my favorite 25 songs of the year. As before, there’s a link by each song where you can download/hear the song or you can get all the tracks in a handy zip file by clicking this link. Let me know your favorite songs of the year in the comments. Thanks for reading!
25. Harlem Shakes – Sunlight MP3
Harlem Shakes’ Technicolor Health is full of guitar pop gems, but this one is the most magnetic and irresistible. The bright, radiant guitar / keys combo sprinkles on top of a pulsating beat and an absurdly catchy hook. You almost need to make up a new word for this song, because “catchy” just don’t cut it in describing how freakin’ addicting the song is.
24. Passion Pit – Moth’s Wings MP3
Passion Pit have a wealth of booty-shaking dance-pop tunes, but as seen on this track they can be just as potent with emotionally-resonating power pop. I said: “Moth’s Wings shows that Passion Pit aren’t content to just be that band you hear at hipster dance parties. The song is quite ambitious, the opening melody is played on dulcimer before a huge instrumental swell with expansive synths and jubilant piano. By the end of the song you’ve got pounding drums and chorus of “la la las” filling the sonic landscape. The band pulls off anthemic pop very impressively.
23. A.C. Newman – The Heartbreak Rides Y2B
A.C. Newman puts all of his songwriting craft and pop sensibilities built up from his day job (which is being the primary songwriter of New Pornogoraphers) and delivers one of his most devastatingly beautiful songs ever with “The Heartbreak Rides”. This song slowly unveils itself utilizing a dynamic build-and-release, but once that rousing chorus hits, the song shoots towards the stratosphere and doesn’t look back. It’s a gorgeous song and one that’s infinitely rewarding.
22. Slow Club – It Doesn’t Have To Be Beautiful MP3
Slow Club’s whimsical, Southern-fried folk-pop songs are rollickin’ good-natured celebrations, played with enthusiasm and a good dose of youthful vigor. I said of the band’s first single, “It Doesn’t Have To Be Beautiful”: Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor call-and-response vocals play off each other perfectly and the chorus of this song is one of the most infectious things I’ve heard all year. By the end of the song, the band is in full out old-fashioned hoe-down mode (complete with a choir of yelping vocals) and it’s damn-near impossible not to be caught up in the pure jubilance of their sound.
21. God Help The Girl – God Help The Girl MP3
Stuart Murdoch took a break this year from his main gig as the singer/songwriter force behind Belle & Sebastian and worked on a collection of songs for an imaginary (or possibly real) film all sung by girls that he chose from a talent contest. While in theory, this would be nothing more than a frivolous vanity project, it actually produced quite a few amazing pop songs, most notably the title track which stands among Stuart’s finest pop compositions. Catherine Ireton’s upbeat vocals are delightfully alluring, the lovestruck lyrics are funny and charming (“I’ll play his messages / Analyze his intonation / Please stop me there, I’m even boring myself”) and the soaring strings arrangement is absolutely lovely.
20. jj – masterplan MP3
This song appeared out of nowhere (Sweden actually) to become one of my most played songs of the year. The band makes sweet, blissful dance pop built on a foundation of world-music percussion, string / synth samples, and exquisite vocals that floats along as freely as the summer breeze. “masterplan” is a pop tour de force with an exhilarating synth line, sweet childlike lyrics (“wanna hear my master plan, here’s my master plan”) and a very clever use of viral video. It all makes for a lush, exceptionally pretty, and impossibly catchy song.
19. Dan Deacon – Snookered MP3
“Snookered” may be bookended by twinkling bells that evoke nursery rhymes and toy music boxes, but in between is the most hyperactive electronica, chipmunk-sounding vocals, and rousing group chantings you’re likely to hear all year. While the music is something of a manic psych rave, Dan actually adds some resonance to the madness with emotionally expressive lines like “Been wrong so many times before, but never quite like this.” It’s kindof like James Murphy on a candy-high. The climatic thrust is absolutely thrilling with vibrant chimes, distorted beats and probably the best use of digitized vocals I’ve ever heard. It all results in one of the most epic, inspiring tunes of the year.
18. Asobi Seksu – Transparence (Single) MP3
Asobi Seksu’s latest Hush is full of delectable pop songs and of them “Transparence” (formerly “Sunshower”) is the most transcendent. Yuki’s voice is at her finest here, soaring through nonsensical, yet entirely exuberant phrases like “Throw out the doorstops and reach for the light / Someday is coming so we’ll hold ourselves tight”. She’s backed by a great rhythm section, the propulsive drumming and crashing cymbals providing the driving force to the track. It all culminates in an anthemic finale as the dreamy atmospherics and ethereal vocals reaches a magnificent peak.
17. Junior Boys – Hazel MP3
This song may have not taken off like I expected it to (I predicted “Ready For The Floor”-level success earlier in the year), but at least in my own personal listenings, “Hazel” was absolutely huge in ’09. It’s the most straight-up club banger that Junior Boys have done, both beautifully structured and sharply executed. Jeremy Greenspan delivers a smooth, soulful vocal performance against an electronica soundscape dripping with pop nostalgia. The heavy 80’s-synth pads feel like a punch in the gut every time they pulsate building towards the climatic synth explosion at the end which I’ve seen aptly described as the sonic equivalent to a UFO spaceship lifting off.
16. St. Vincent – Actor Out Of Work MP3
Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) may look cute as a button on the possibly 40 Year Old Virgin-inspired album cover for Actor, but on the mesmerizing first single “Actor out of Work” she shows that she’s not one to be messed with. The song begins with her hurling biting insults (“You’re a liar and that’s the truth / You’re an extra, lost in the scene”) at what looks to be an unfaithful lover that she just can’t get out of her mind. If the lyrics are fierce though, the guitar riffs are absolutely vicious. The end of the song is the biggest highlight, with an eerie choir of voices joining the blaring guitar /synthesizer and creating a distorted cacophony of sound that serves as the track’s strongest statement.
15. Fanfarlo – The Walls Are Coming Down MP3
Fanfarlo excel at crafting beautiful arrangements and they absolutely knock it out of the park on this bombastic folk-pop anthem. This is simply a gorgeous song. The band weaves together trumpets, ukelele, and violins to make a stunning, luscious sound. It’s obvious that the band gets much joy and satisfaction from creating these enchanting, richly textured songs and the jubilance is definitely contagious while listening.
14. Jay-Z – Empire State of Mind f/ Alicia Keys Y2B
Jay-Z hasn’t lost his magic touch when it comes to singles and “Empire State of Mind” is one of his most victorious. Jay begins rapping a passionate love letter to NYC (not unlike Kanye’s “Homecoming” for Chi-town). The verse is good enough on its own but then comes the massive hook and holy crap, Alicia Keys frickin’ nails it, which bumps the song up about 100 notches. Girl has pipes y’all and damn if that lyric (“These streets will make you feel brand new, The lights will inspire you”), however cheesy it may be, doesn’t make you feel good to be alive. I have to agree with Stephen T. Colbert when he said,”This song is gonna take over ‘New York, New York”. You can take that thing and throw it in the trash.”
13. Andrew Bird – Anonanimal MP3
One of the things I love about Andrew Bird is that each of his albums have a different feel. While 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha was Bird’s foray into more poppy, guitar-oriented songs, this album includes some of his most complex and highly evolved tunes, “Anonanimal” being the best example. It’s apparent from the very first bars that this is one of Andrew Bird’s most intricate and studied arrangements, layering a somber bowed violin with a shower of plucked notes from stringed instruments too multiple to count. The lyrics are a typical Birdian mixture of witty non sequiters and perplex idioms (“The seemingly innocuous plecostomus / though posthumus / they talk too much”). Midway through song the meticulous looped strings pause allowing an organic combination of drums and electric guitar to take up the melody, though eventually the strings work their way back in (this is Andrew Bird we’re talking about here). All this to say, “Anonanimal” is a meticulously crafted folk masterpiece.
12. Camera Obscura – French Navy MP3
I thought it would have been impossible to top “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” but this really is Camera Obscura’s grandest and catchiest pop song. From the quick instrumental bursts of the intro to the sweeping orchestration of the chorus, with Tracyanne Cambell convictingly weaving a tale of the fleeting nature of love, it’s a glorious musical journey. And let me just say that those playful strings decorating the outro are 100% enchanting.
11. Neko Case – People Got A Lotta Nerve MP3
In a year that couldn’t seem to produce a half-decent top 40 rock single (Kings of Leon were probably the only ones that came anywhere close) perhaps the best shoulda-been contender was created by alt-country heroine, Neko Case. This song has enough propulsive thrust to wipe the floor with any number of rockers and her pipes are umatched by anyone in any genre. Plus, is it so hard to imagine that a song that’s actually enjoyable to listen to can become a rock hit (how fun is it to sing along to that “killer whales” line)? Remember those four British dudes from the 60’s? Sorry, that this has become a rant against dumb rock radio, the point is that “People Got A Lotta Nerve” is one of the most instantly appealing tracks to reach my ears this year and it’s a shame that people are still listening to Hoobastank and Linkin Park and calling that music.
10. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Wind Phoenix MP3
Cymbals Eat Guitars rode a wave of online buzz (some of it coming from this very site) to become one of most talked about debut artists of the year and with good reason. With songs as vital and epic as “Wind Phoenix” they are the epitome of what a good indie rock (whatever that term means nowadays) should look like. I said: The songs are loaded with a mixture of dueling guitars, powerful trumpets, and ornate piano that brilliantly combine with the ragged vocals of Joseph Ferocious which impulsively jump from a melodic croon to an angst-ridden yelp… “Wind Phoenix” begins with a playful bass line and triumphant horns and bells that hook you immediately before taking a mid-song turn towards epic, sweeping guitar wankery territory. The song casually leads you back to the melodic, though, providing a wonderful bookend for the track.
9. Bon Iver – Blood Bank MP3
I was hounded endlessly by readers when both 2007 and 2008 passed and Bon Iver had not made it onto one of my year-end lists. As it turns out I was just waiting for the right song to reveal the brilliance of Justin Vernon’s majestic, heartfelt folk to me. After my first listen to “Blood Bank” when the music halts and Justin hits that gorgeous falsetto, I knew that I had found what I was looking for. Along with that lovely bridge, there’s the somber, cryptic lyrics and the minimalistic instrumentation that add to the loveliness of the song. Is it about pregnancy? Infidelity? Donating blood on Christmas morning? Whatever the case may be, this is one of the most poignant and evocative tracks of the year.
8. Bat for Lashes – Daniel MP3
It’s quite apparent that Natahsa Khan has a flair for the dramatic and with “Daniel” she focuses all her theatrical tendencies into a rich, melancholic song. The track’s otherworldly strings and ominous drum beats are matched by her borderline-obsessive musings about the title character (quite possibly Daniel LaRusso from the Karate Kid). I said: “Daniel” strikes a wonderful balance of being extremely accessible while retaining a mystical, atmospheric quality that makes her music unique and inventive. Natasha’s vocals are absolutely enchanting and the dark synths and viola instrumentation gives the music a seductive edge making this an incredibly whimsical, engaging pop song.
7. Japandroids – Young Hearts Spark Fire MP3
“Young Hearts Spark Fire” is less of a song and more of a rally cry. Beginning with one of the most ragged, downright explosive guitar riffs you’re bound to hear all year, the song hits climax after breathtaking climax as David Prowse’s furious drumming and Brian King’s impossibly loud, vehemently fuzzy power chords make your head spin. Also these dudes don’t really sing, so much as yell the anthemic lines at the top of their lungs, and you can’t blame them when they have lyrics as simple and profound as “We used to dream / Now we just worry about dying” which may be my favorite couplet of the year. That along with the song’s fiery punk enthusiasm captures the thrill of youth perfectly.
6. Atlas Sound – Walkabout (w/ Noah Lennox) MP3
In of the most super indie-fied collabs of ’09, Bradford Cox (who I’ve never much cared for) and Noah Lennox (who is totally my bro for life) paired up to create one of the sunniest, most infectious pop jams of the year. I personally never would have expected this song to be released under the Atlas Sound moniker (Panda Bear or Anco seem more likely) but it’s impossible to argue with the elated glee and childlike wonder that “Walkabout” provides. In addition to be one of the most fun songs of the year to listen to, it’s also one of the most simple, all you need is an enduringly catchy keyboard loop, an innocent musing (“What did you want to be when you grew up?”), warbly vocals and some refreshingly summery instrumentation. Oh Noah/Bradford, you make it all look so easy.
5. Grizzly Bear – Two Weeks MP3
Unlike many who were immediately struck by the force of nature that is Grizzly Bear, I had to easy myself into fandom, but after the altogether phenomenal Veckatimest and particularly the excellent lead-off single, “Two Weeks” you can put me in the diehard, mega-fan category. I don’t think I’m alone, as it’s hard to imagine anyone listening to this meticuously detailed and gloriously cheerful morsel of pop sunshine and not be left with a gigantic smile on their face. I said: The song is absolutely lovely in every way, the vocal harmonies are a revelation and the keyboard line that plays throughout is a complete breath of fresh air. A song that’s wonderfully accessible as well as vivid, dynamic, and strikingly expressive.
4. Sunset Rubdown – You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) Y2B
Spencer Krug’s infalible prolificness continues to amaze me and with the online release of Moonface, yet another side-project, plus a third Wolf Parade album underway, it appears he has no plans of stopping anytime soon. With “You Go On Ahead”, Spencer Krug’s already illustrious career has reached a new dimension of greatness. The song is not so much played as it bursts out of the speakers devouring everything in sight. It’s a complete maelstrom of awesomeness built upon layers of razor sharp guitar licks, sprightly keys, and Spencer Krug’s dynamic yelp. It also has quite possibly my favorite musical passage of the year arriving right as Krug sings “And the days add up to weeks add up to months add up to years” with the band and a sea of guitar congruously joining in. I get goosebumps every time I hear it.
3. The Antlers – Two MP3
From the moment that strummed guitar washes over you, “Two” takes you on a profoundly affecting emotional journey. The track so emotionally draining it’s almost hard to listen to, but (as I said before) each time I hear the song I’m profoundly moved by the it’s simple melodic progression, Silberman’s sublime falsetto, and the incredibly touching lyrics. The vocal performance is honest and heartfelt as he sings about his girlfriend dying of (presumably) cancer. His inability to save her tears himself up inside and you can feel the pain in lines like “Then they stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying / They should have listened, they thought that you were lying” and his anger when he says “Daddy was an asshole, he f**ked you up”. The track builds to an incredibly stirring climax that gives me lump in my throat every time. Rarely am I so incredibly touched by a song, but “Two” makes me lose it every time.
2. Animal Collective – My Girls MP3
I remember “My Girls” coming on at a party and me telling a friend that this song is the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” of our generation (side note: I may or may not have been drinking at the time). Although in 40 years, people may not be singing about “four walls and adobe slabs for my girls” as frequently as they do “Oh yeah I’ll tell you something”, you can’t deny that “My Girls” has that timeless quality where it just permeates itself in your brain and never leaves. The song’s structure is nearly flawless beginning with a rush of electronic pulses and lush vocals and then eventually layering in an array of percussive beats and swirling background vocals. The voices then unify for the enthralling chorus which skyrockets the song into an exuberant dance jam accompanied by grandiose tribal drumming and one of the most cathartic “Awhoos” that can be heard in pop music. There’s a reason this song is topping singles lists left and right and was almost instantly proclaimed a classic. It’s just that damn good.
Wait, I thought you said each artist can only have one song? Well to paraphrase a certain psycho clown, tonight I’m going to break my one rule. The truth is that while I was going back and forth between these two songs deciding which should be included, it hit me. Why decide? The fact is that “Lisztomania” and “1901” are equally deserving of top honors. Together they deliver one of the most outstanding 1-2 punches that have opened an album since, I don’t know, ever (feel free to prove me wrong) and even on their own they’re brilliant enough to both be considered 2009’s crowning achievements.
It starts with that striking two-note guitar tone and within seconds you’re immersed in the deliriously exciting world of “Lisztomania”. The track is everything a good pop song should be, dazzling, spirited, and astonishingly catchy. You could write books about every aspect of this song, the vivacious drumming, the crisp production, the irresistible guitar, and Thomas Mars electrifying vocals all come together to make something extraordinary (and that isn’t even to mention that beyond amazing “it’s showtime” bridge).
This euphoria leads directly into “1901”, which takes all that “mania” from the previous song and releases it with those immense, buzzy synth explosions that are now synonymous (for anyone that watches TV) with Cadillac SUVs. This leads to the pre-chorus breakdown where all guitars, keys, drums, and vocals frantically rally together before erupting in a mindblowing symphonic feast while Thomas Mars wraps himself up in the moment enthusiastically singing “falling, falling, falling, falling”. It’s moments like these that really define for me the universal power of a great pop song and it makes me excited to share those moments with others. And for that I am eternally grateful.
Download all these songs in a zip here. Link Down (you can still download individual MP3s above)
Other Songs Lists:
Tags: A.C. Newman, Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Asobi Seksu, Atlas Sound, Bat for Lashes, Bon Iver, Camera Obscura, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Dan Deacon, Fanfarlo, God Help The Girl, Grizzly Bear, Harlem Shakes, Japandroids, Jay-Z, JJ, Junior Boys, Neko Case, Passion Pit, Phoenix, Slow Club, St. Vincent, Sunset Rubdown, The Antlers