Who better than Deerhunter to make a song about a murdered Russian prostitute sound positively triumphant? Their astounding Halcyon Digest is full of hazy pop hammered together in a junkyard studio yet it’s the ethereal “Helicopter” that cuts the deepest. The song, built on quavering guitars and watery ebb-and-flow atmospherics, moves forward in small circles as our protagonist inches toward his fate. When the floodgates are finally breached, Bradford Cox is left to sing “Now they are through with me” over and over until it becomes an expression of relief, not despair. We can only hope that whatever’s on the other side sounds this gorgeous. Daniel Tebo
The joy of sex is rarely so joyously—and unmistakably—captured as it is in this happiest, heart-pounding, butt-shaking of songs. Eugene Hütz’s rough voice, rooted in Romani, belies his experience in this area, but the subject matter of the song is a boy just on the precipice of this brain-bending discovery, and oh, gawd, he’s eager to dive in. The hard-rocking, gypsy punk music shakes us to the core and throws us at the mercy of this most basic thing that keeps us spellbound—perhaps most intensely when we’re young. It’s in the primal beat, and the intense musicianship. Listening to “Pala Tute”, we become that boy, looking at that girl, who’s looking right back at him. But first, his gypsy right of passage must be met: he wants to get the girl? He must learn to play the guitar. Need I say that he masters the instrument quickly? By the end of the song her breast is heaving, his breast is heaving, your breast is heaving—and we’re all just grinning and panting like the happy sinners that we are. Whoo! That was fun! Karen Zarker
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
“Round and Round”
The lead single and best song off of Pink’s Before Today, hell, the best song in his expansive oeuvre, “Round and Round” seems at first listen to be the kind of song that causes jaded music critics to lament, as Greg Kihn once said, “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore.” But then you realize that they never wrote them like this: disco beats, effervescent chorus hooks, murky chords in odd time progressions, an intermittent phone call, odes to air guitar, et al. As it turns out, Pink, like those who imagined that this was once the norm, remembers the past different than it actually happened. That this is his rock star bid means that perhaps he is pulling part of some alternate dimension back with him, in defiance of the robust digital idyll of our own. Timothy Gabriele
“Shutterbugg” is a four-minute smash that pushes the boundaries of the 21st century Southern funk that Big Boi has pioneered as half of OutKast and a key member of the Dungeon Family in subtle, but significant ways. The beat is harder and more insistent than before, the flow is smoother and more relaxed than before. Big Boi has always seemed like a great conductor, masterfully coordinating and blending so many elements into one beautiful masterpiece. On “Shutterbugg”, he creates one of his greatest symphonies of pure, unadulterated funk. Tyler Lewis
“Dance Yrself Clean”
If This Is Happening does indeed prove, as promised, to be James Murphy’s swansong, “Dance Yrself Clean” provides specific instructions as to how to properly mourn LCD Soundsystem. The song encapsulates everything that makes Murphy’s band so great: a relentless build, lyrics at once soaked in pathos and dripping with belly-laugh humor, and an energy contagious enough that it should be examined by the CDC. When that Everest-sized beat kicks in at the three-minute mark, it may be the single most thrilling moment any track delivered all year. We’ll miss LCD Soundsystem, but we won’t do it standing still. Corey Beasley
Implored to ponder, neither maestro nor philistine could argue against preservation of a childlike imagination as an indispensable device in the creation of great art. A caveat of maturity and the empathy gained through culturally imposed wisdom is the risk of inflating the superego with altruistic morality and thus repressing the narcissistic nature of all humans to a point rendering true self-examination and thus self-expression virtually impossible.
On “Power”, when Kanye West raps “for my inner child I’m fighting for custody”, he is referring precisely to the same element of the id that Bob Dylan spoke of reclaiming during his infamous 1963 ECLC Tom Paine Award acceptance speech and on the brilliant “My Back Pages”. The qualities that earned Dylan the reputation of an immature, bratty asshole in the 1960s also afforded him unprecedented insight into the collective unconscious of his era—something inaccessible to the non-egocentric. Without the facets of Kanye’s ego that have caused occasional lapses into naïveté and narcissism, his work as the most brilliantly introspective and humorously self-deprecating rapper in history would not exist. On “Power”—his first single following his notorious fallout with (white) America—he is stating just that. To remain relevant, genius and egomaniac can not be mutually exclusive entities of Kanye West’s psyche; those incapable of appreciating that duality unadulterated have no business listening to his music. Anthony Henriques
Never has the mission statement of a musical comeback arrived so perfectly formed. With portentous tribal chants, wailing sirens and a heavy drum-line, “Power” opens like a soundtrack to the end of the world, but as West begins to rap you realise this is less about unceremonious endings and more about exultant beginnings. In a heart-stopping four minutes he will reduce, rebuild, shame and exclaim his ego and all with the audacity to build it around a King Crimson sample. Sonically and lyrically “Power” is the equivalent of a revelatory Frankenstein’s monster, who sees its own reflection… and sneers back. Tom Fenwick
Matt Berninger is acting out in some pretty awkward ways. Flashing lovers from the foot of their bed, going face down on a car hood. Of all his perculiar lyrics, this set may be the strangest. His speaker seems to go all over the place—from odd loneliness to worries over debt—but it all becomes clear when he drops that word. “Bloodbuzz.” This isn’t some typical drunk, this is a bone-deep malady, something permanent. And the thundering stumble of the drums, the hard edge of the guitars, the chasm of echo around Berninger’s voice, it all points to that same disconnection. This song is the best distillation of the National’s whole sound. You can’t name exactly what they’re worrying over, but you recognize it immediately. Matt Fiander
A bouncy ditty at the end of the Arcade Fire’s mammoth third album, The Suburbs, “Sprawl II” is a pleasant surprise. Though the record is stuck in the muck of suburban plight and existential quandaries, “Sprawl II” sounds positively jubilant in spite of—or because of—these themes. The song slowly unfolds as Régine Chassagne’s voice leaps from the desperate circumstances she sings about, peaking with an emotionally rapturous chorus that informs the best of the band’s songs.
When Janelle Monáe frequently closes her live performances with “Tightrope”, it’s no mere act of coincidence that someone comes on stage to place a cape over her while she’s belting—a direct homage to James Brown that is both fitting and earned, as Janelle Monáe has positively busted her hump to get to that moment. Effortlessly mixing one of the funkiest basslines this side of Daptone Records with a swinging horn section and scat-like vocals, this song is an empowerment anthem, a dance craze, and the highlight of your day all at once. Monáe’s expertly calculated vocal delivery allows her to fit in as many verses as she can without ever fully tipping over into rap, although when OutKast’s Big Boi steps in with a verse of his own, the transition is seamless. When you add it all up, “Tightrope” isn’t merely the song that pushed Monáe closer to the mainstream, but instead the one song that proved that in 2010, genre was almost a tertiary consideration to the average listener. You can call it pop, you can call it soul, you can call it funk, rap, retro-revivalism, or just about anything else, but just make sure you call it by what it really is: hands down one of the greatest singles released all year. Evan Sawdey
We were all one nation under a “Fuck You” in 2010, as Cee-Lo Green brought the fresh decade its first real anthem with his sugar rush of cheerful profanity, exuberant classic R&B homage and endlessly relatable (and even warmly empathetic) sentiment. Credit Green’s impeccable pop smarts as much as any novelty factor, the ease with which he condenses a half-century of heartbroken laments from Motown to Kanye into an instant classic. Mark my words, your grandchildren will still be singing along to this one. Jer Fairall