“I Only Know (What I Know Now)”
As we anxiously anticipate his full-length debut in February, this London-based producer has already managed to transform one of techno’s most brash genres into a delicate mix of minimalist aesthetics and songwriter bravado. And “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” from the Klavierwerke EP is just another ringing endorsement that James Blake is indeed the future. With nothing more than a few hissing piano keys, the distant rattling of a drum and a chopped vocal sample, “I Only Know” is one of this year’s most obviously simple but astonishing tracks. The oscillating loops, filled with equal parts silence, place a premium on patience and persistence, rewarding the listener with this post-genre gem. “I Only Know” is also a great microcosm of Blake’s work, highlighting both his gorgeous voice and his special talent as a producer. If you still have yet to hear the Parisian, “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” is as good a place to start as any.
– Erik Burg
“Monster” (Feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver & Nicki Minaj)
[Roc-a-Fella / Def Jam]
What is the most special part of “Monster”? Is it Jay-Z’s refusal to obey the common rules of rhyme and his awkward declaration of “loooooooooove”? Is it Nicki Minaj’s fist-throwing verse that centers around her ability to draw in skeptics when she talks about not much more than her bank account? No, it is the fact that for all its absurdity, clever turns of phrase (“Malibu-yah”!) and fun monster rhymes, it’s the kind of tune that gets someone who isn’t a fan of hip-hop to give Kanye West a serious listen. It was the perfect storm of intrigue, and it worked.
– Philip Cosores
“Not in Love” (Feat. Robert Smith)
Crystal Castles are about as divisive as it gets. People say they suck live, people adore them live, the album can range anywhere from the top ten of the year to the worst depending on who you talk to. But one thing about the band that seems pretty unanimous is that the single version of “I’m Not in Love,” with Robert Smith of The Cure taking over lead vocals, totally rules. It is hard to comprehend how the very same song with different vocals was pretty pedestrian. Of course the heavier mix in the chorus helps (sift verse, hard chorus is always a good call). Robert Smith is hard to go wrong with, but the realization that every Crystal Castles song might be better with Robert Smith singing is maybe not the most encouraging thing for Alice Glass.
– Philip Cosores
The Black Keys
Ever needed proof that The Black Keys and Danger Mouse were a match made in heaven? Attack and Release wasn’t enough? Well, isn’t it lucky that a Danger Mouse produced gem appears on Brothers. Admittedly, it sticks out like a sore thumb on Brothers; the strutting rhythm, attention to detail, quirkiness (whistling) and mid-song breakdown are the antithesis of the laid-back and raw feel of the rest of Brothers. But for some reason “Tighten Up” just works for the band far better than anything else. The psychedelic-tinged sound gives The Black Keys a unique slant compared to the rest of their garage rock comrades, and it’s on “Tighten Up” the band perfect this sound.
– Daniel Griffiths
The TRON: Legacy score may have gotten all the hype, but Daft Punk’s most lasting production of 2010 may be this chilled-out bedroom jam, the highlight of N.E.R.D.’s spotty fourth studio album, Nothing. The washes of synth mesh perfectly with Pharrell Williams’ falsetto as he delivers come-ons in the Prince/R. Kelly mold. “Hypnotize U” functions as a sequel of sorts to Daft Punk’s underrated Discovery track “Something About Us,” but to focus only on the big-name production would be a disservice to Pharrell, who proves he still has his touch as a melody writer and vocalist.
– Sean Highkin
“Telephone” (Feat. Beyonce)
[Streamline / KonLive / Cherrytree / Interscope]
“Telephone” is an intelligent track. Beginning with a subtle melody, Lady Gaga creates an atmosphere of soft heartbreak before the dance beats enter the mix. Gaga has a knack for merging her accessible, commercial-friendly voice with complex and addictive tunes. Beyonce makes the perfect partner for Gaga; the two of them bounce lyrics off of one another with fluid grace, revealing themselves as great collaborators. Gaga is the star of the show, however, making yet another smart decision with her music. Few modern artists have such a grasp of dance and pop–Gaga’s talents are still growing this early into her career, and no song demonstrates her genius as well as “Telephone.”
– Alex Phillimore
It was the story of a gay Russian sex slave that inspired Bradford Cox to write the most heartbreaking song on Halcyon Digest, but what makes this song so memorable is the way Deerhunter manages to relate to that backstory and in turn universalize those feelings for their listeners. Cox’s refrain “Now they are through with me” is a study in emoting; repeating the line several times goes from anxious and anguished to despondent and, ultimately, resigned. After he sings the line for the last time, the song’s bubbly outro begins—it’s a beautiful, haunting moment. The song’s narrator may have been abandoned, but a song like this—slowpoke shuffle, a killer synth harpsichord melody line, and all—well, a song like this will stay with you for a long time.
– Josh Becker
“Enter The Ninja”
Upon hearing “Enter The Ninja” at a party, a South African is flabberghasted that anyone outside of her home country has heard of Die Antwoord. Much to her surprise, the whole party is dancing and laughing, spouting off lyrics at rapid speeds, and doing their best to replicate Ninja’s “zef flow.” Despite their surge in popularity, Die Antwoord, (Afrikaans for The Answer), are still very much a question. How seriously are we meant to take the rap trio, and does it really matter? When “Enter The Ninja” plays at the party, no one seems to care… and why should we? How often are we given a hip-hop single that makes us laugh, dance, and feel at least the slightest bit uncomfortable all at once? Outside of South Africa, we may not fully appreciate the finer details of Zef culture, but if Die Antwoord can manage to top “Enter The Ninja” and it’s bizarrely captivating music video, we’ll certainly keep trying.
– Ricky Schweitzer
“Dance Yrself Clean”
[DFA / Parlophone]
“Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk and living proof; sometimes friends are mean.”
When Kanye West sets out to hog all the great musical moments of the year to himself, it becomes no easy task to stake a claim in the oftentimes fickle conscience of music fandom. “Dance Yrself Clean” manages the feat with ease; the well governed onslaught of synths that begin their march with a typically deadpan refrain of “ahh-ahh”s from Murphy are both businesslike and chaotic, but primarily are joyously disruptive. Made all the more potent by the quiet and contended three minute introduction (content only musically; the controlled but clearly annoyed lyrics are another matter), “Dance Yrself Clean” features what is undoubtedly the moment of This is Happening and quite possibly the moment of 2010 as well.
– Ian Barker
Out of all the songs on this year’s High Violet, “Conversation 16” is the one that evokes the strongest sense of melancholy, both in the music and the lyrics. The ever-amazing Aaron Dessner, the mastermind behind the music, penned some fairly nonstandard, shimmery percussion, giving the whole song the feeling of a grey day, or looking out onto a foggy coastline. Vocalist Matt Berninger brings his usual baritone up to a higher, anxious-sounding voice. “I tell you miserable things while you are asleep,” he sighs hopelessly. It’s songs like these that make our apprehensive, aimless peers absolutely smitten with these guys.
– Arika Dean