Balearic music is either your thing or it’s not—it’s such a niche in European dance music that it’s usually only the Ibiza enthusiasts who care. But either way, you must admit that “Real Love” is a heartwarmingly charming song, containing a repetitive vocal line that asks in a slight Basque accent, “Will we ever meet again? Will we ever?” Some very early ‘90s rave piano keys hover over a series of pitch-shifted and carefully-arranged “ahh”s. At 6:06, it’s the longest song from Delorean’s Balearic-influenced album Subiza, but given the sense of lovely yearning it conveys, I’m willing to bet you’ll have more than enough patience for it.
– Arika Dean
“Ghetto” (Feat. Raekwon, Cappadonna & U-God)
A last-minute, yet unanimous, addition to this list is Ghostface Killah’s “Ghetto” from December’s Apollo Kids. The infectious track is guided by a scaling bass line, highlighting just one of many influences on the record. And after carving out the groove that few hip-hop tracks can match, the drum roll-to-hand clap hook kicks in and you’ll find yourself pushing the repeat button while “Ghetto” is just getting starting. All the while Marlena Shaw’s sampled chorus makes for a powerful narrator, guiding Killah’s tale. “Ghetto” might not be the most technically sound track on the album, the most lyrically smooth, but its infectious loops and gritty vocals make it one of the most exciting hip-hop tracks of the year.
– Erik Burg
“You Put a Smell on Me”
Like many of Dear’s songs, “You Put a Smell on Me” is full of great textures working between and around each other. But one thing it can boast above many others is sheer force: with each bar that electrifying buzzing synth is like a bullet to brain while the beats are as vicious as getting your head stomped on by a man in huge hiking boot. And who’d have thought something so ferocious and even brutal could turn out to be on of most strangely catchy songs from this year? On Dear’s album Black City he explored the grimy nightlife that takes over a city and expelled an astounding (albeit a little strange) version of a Saturday night piss-up. “You Put a Smell on Me” condenses all the loose ideas on Black City and delivers them so expertly in five minutes of danceable goth-house-electronica-funk (or however you might want to classify this) you can almost smell the sweat pouring off the forehead of everyone around you.
– Ray Finlayson
“Afraid of Everyone”
It seems a common theme in the work of the National: the idea of hurting those who we love. From “Slipping Husband” on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers to the brain eating references on another High Violet standout, Matt Berninger seems to subscribe to an intense sense of inadequacy and a fear that his actions will have drastic consequences for those dear to him. Here he explicitly states it: “With my kid on my shoulders I try/ Not to hurt anybody I like.” Its straightforwardness is heartbreaking, and further emphasized by its ghostly background vocals. The National has always dabbled in the dark, but with these piano chords and sweeping orchestral elements its the sound of pure night. The sound of a man aimlessly wandering the streets, expressing regret for vague things that he’s yet to do.
– Colin Joyce
How a late night cartoon series ever managed to parlay its fame into getting two of hip-hop’s music elusive and prolific artists together is beyond us, but the first official Madvillain track since 2007 has listeners pining for the new album. “Papermill” centers around Madlib’s signature sampling, this time cutting up Afro-beat vocals and an echoing guitar riff. DOOM’s characteristically gargled and unrelenting flow compliment the schizophrenic beat. Hip-hop has come a long way since producer/emcee duos like Eric B & Rakim or Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, but Madvillain’s unparalleled madness has made “Papermill” an instant classic.
– Erik Burg
“Live In Dreams”
That flute intro is just perfect, isn’t it? In twenty seconds, it encapsulates so much of what makes Gemini so special: dreamlike remembrance, vague longing, the promise of love. When Jack Tatum sings, “Our lips won’t last forever, and that’s exactly why/ I’d rather live in dreams and I’d rather die,” he recalls another twinkling indie pop classic: Morrissey’s assurance that “If a double-decker bus crashes into us/ To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” Like the Smiths, Wild Nothing succeeds in talking about distressing feelings and painful memories through a gorgeous musical lens. Toward the end, when Tatum repeats “We’ve got eyes on the back of our heads,” that flute melody floats back to prominence, and it’s clear: Tatum is crafting the soundtrack to his dreams. This song is the perfect introduction to that effort.
– Josh Becker
From the first moment that I heard “Undertow,” I couldn’t shake how familiar one of the hooks sounded. “What’s the matter? You hurt yourself?” I just couldn’t get it out of my head, and after scouring the all reliable internet, it hit me. “Polly.” This Warpaint song started its life as a cover of the famed Nirvana track (as interesting an approach to songwriting as any). However, aside from the melodic similarity in the first line of the chorus, they couldn’t be more different. Where Nirvana is punishing and cathartic, Warpaint is brooding and ominous. It’s an interesting turn for something that at first seemed so familiar. It keeps me from bellyaching about stealing a canonical Cobain melody, a cardinal musical sin if I’ve ever heard one.
– Colin Joyce
“Time Fading Lines”
Woods aren’t wondering why they didn’t get much attention this year for their nearly-perfect Brooklyn-folk album, At Echo Lake. Though they threw a mini-festival and took it on tour, they only stopped a handful of places and featured little known acts from their record label. They toured little outside of that and lack many of the qualities that are usually associated with success. I mean, they have a band member manipulating tape to create texture. Live. He looks like a computer came alive and tried to combine with his face. But one listen to “Time Fading Lines” and you hear why Jamie Earl is a vocalist that no comparison does justice. His range-defying peaks appear as consistently as ocean waves on the album, but it’s the subtleties that really make this song. Listen to the closing “ooo”s he gives like they were just another instrument, joining the tape manipulation and the intensified strumming of the loose-stringed acoustic. The outro sees every piece of their sound come together at the same moment. Hopefully time will find it the audience it deserves.
– Philip Cosores
“Limit to Your Love”
James Blake is one of the most-mentioned artists on our year-end lists–and with good reason. Interestingly enough, however, it’s Blake’s cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” which has garnered him the most attention. It is rather odd to think of a career being kickstarted by a post-dubstep remix of a track by the opposite gender, but that’s exactly what the supremely talented Blake has done. Blake’s vibrato matches the pulsating bass line on “Limit to Your Love,” powerfully commanding the ear of the listener from the first strike of a key. There’s an ineffable elegance that is unmatched in “Limit to Your Love.” The track is ultimately the perfect blend of raw emotion and perfected production, a sound all his own. Expect to hear Blake’s name just as often in 2011.
– Erik Burg
“Baby Birch” could very well be about an abortion; it could also perhaps be about an accidental miscarriage, or even simply a young love lost. No matter which angle you choose to look at this lament, its role as the definitive track on Joanna Newsom’s brilliant triple LP cannot be mistaken. Musically, it has everything – while it holds down the conventional Newsom characteristics of impeccable harp playing to help conjure a warm, antiquated melody, it also bears new elements to her music that played a part in making Have One on Me such a standout not only among her own work, but all of 2010.
Here, as on the entire record, her vocals are less strained and a bit easier to digest. Also, the additions of instrumentation, such as the percussion as well as some eastern-influenced folk instruments (got to love the pipa!), help the song to fly to places her music has never been. Still, the motherly undertones of her lyrics and the softened, striking arrangements permeate through it all; Newsom is on the very top of her game on this one.
– Anthony Matarese