December really is the most wonderful time of the year. Not only does Christmas essentially last the entire month, but critics publish their lists of the best music of the year. Some of these lists are pretentious (Really Pitchfork, Ariel Pink’s “Round and Round” is the best song of the year? Not just in the top ten, it’s the best?) while others are pandering (Rolling Stone has plenty of good stuff, but they always throw in some curve balls. According to them, Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” is the fiftieth best song the the year. How about you add a few zeros to that number?) Hopefully, the 17 Tracks list is neither of those things. Created from top 25 lists of 17 Tracks contributors, it ranges from pop to indie to rock and hip-hop. Hope you enjoy.
Honorable mentions: “Power” – Kanye West, “Airplanes” – B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams, “Boyfriend” – Best Coast, “Tenderoni” – Kele, “Yamaha” – The-Dream, “Find Your Love” – Drake, “Commander” – Kelly Rowland, “Indestructible” – Robyn, “Rude Boy” – Rihanna, “Guns & Horses” – Ellie Goulding
Beach House’s new album Teen Dream, is composed of 11 tracks that somehow melt in and out of the other while competing for your attention simultaneously. “Norway,” however, is the most telling of the ambient duo’s new album. The 3 minute and 55 second long song starts out with kicking drums, joined by the characteristic guitar, keyboard, and siren-like vocals. This track embodies the increased maturity and sensitivity found on their new album and suggests that despite having found their niche in today’s music scene, this is a band that is not afraid of change. – JP
“All The Lovers” is a return to form for Australia’s reigning pop star. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and failing to meet expectations with her comeback album, Kylie Minogue was in need of a hit. Teaming up with producer Stuart Price was a good choice, resulting in the glossy, intelligent, and highly danceable Aphrodite. “All The Lovers” captures the euphoria of the album as Kylie commands the listener to dance and gently tells her lover, “don’t be frightened, just give me a little bit more.” – HS
The Local Natives somehow fuse the styles of Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and Kings of Convenience to supply every indie kid and small venue across the country with the refreshing sound were craving this summer. “Airplanes,” the track that originally sparked everyone’s interest with its cascading guitars, captivating piano, and audience-participation-inducing clapping, make it nearly impossible not to join with Taylor Rice’s smooth vocals and sing along. Their debut album “Gorilla Manor,” was released in early March and though still underground enough to keep pretentious listeners content, it’s a great introduction to an impressive new band. - JP
Before Kanye teamed up with Bon Iver, Kid Cudi teamed up with MGMT, hinting at the distinct indie feel many in hip-hop would take over the course of the year. MGMT might have failed to match the pop sensibilities of Oracular Spectacular on their new record, but they make up for it with their hook on “Pursuit of Happiness”. Slurring through his verses, Cudi recounts his fruitless search for happiness saying, “everything that shines ain’t always gonna be golden.” – HS
“F**k You!” (also known as “the song otherwise known as ‘Forget You!’”) is the successor to such quirky neo-retro pop gems as “Hey Ya!” and Cee Lo’s other big hit, “Crazy”. The song failed to reach the level of ubiquity of those similarly styled hits for obvious reasons, but it did pretty well considering its explicit title. The lyrics-only video went viral this summer, and then the song was given new life by Glee in November, reaching No. 9 on the Hot 100. – HS
Ellie Goulding may not yet be a household name in the States, but in her native U.K. she has made quite the debut. She topped the BBC Sound of 2010 poll which honors new talent and was also awarded the Critics’ Choice Award at the 2010 BRIT Awards. “Lights” was originally a bonus track on her acclaimed debut effort of the same name, but was officially released as the albums’ fifth single this year. Haunting ethereal, otherwordly, “Lights” demands our attention and proves that Ellie Goulding is one to watch in 2011. – CH
“Little Lion Man” the first single released by London’s nu-folk rock quartet Mumford & Sons, boasts flawlessly composed instrumental arrangements, an intoxicating melody, and an unforgettable chorus. The song provides an accurate insight to the band’s first album Sign No More, which features 12 other tracks that are equally impressive. Four other singles were equally well-received as they were released over the last 10 months, but “Little Lion Man” will hold a special place in the hearts of many as the song that introduced so many of us to this great new band. – JP
Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West, or Weezer feat. Jay-Z? It’s okay—we weren’t sure at first, either. The same Kid Cudi that won us over with his debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day, showed no trepidation in parting from his typical style for something a little more radio-ready. Mr. Solo Dolo inherently attracts hipsters and electro-heads alike, but assured that no genre would be left unaffected album by featuring Kanye West on this track. If there was any way to heighten the anticipation of his album that came out in September, “Erase Me” was without a doubt the way to do it. – JP
Critics compared Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” to a modern day “La Isla Bonita” or an Ace of Base knock off, but Gaga’s seventh top ten single was unmistakably hers. The song evoked the album art on The Fame Monster with black tears streaming down her face as weeping strings give way to towering, colossal synth lines.”She’s not broken, she’s just a baby,” Gaga sings about the protagonist, an insecure girl with both hands in her pockets. – HS
“I know what’s on your mind there will be time for that too,” sings Robyn in Body Talk Pt. 2‘s “Hang With Me”. Yeah, that’s right, Robyn is talking about friends with benefits. The euphoric melody and insistent and gentle blips courtesy of producer Klas Åhlund don’t hint towards the song’s true meaning, but it’s a part of its charm. Warning her lover he can only hang with her if he doesn’t fall in love, the girl who perpetually gets her heart broken is finally firmly in control. – HS
Our first toast to the doucebags started with a simple repeated keystroke and catchy melody. The stage of MTV’s Video Music Awards ceremony was rushed by the corps de ballet as Kanye West delivered his most earnest performance of all time. Not long after its debut, the song played title for Kanye’s 35 minute long art film. “Runaway” is the poster child for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the album that assures critics and aficionados alike that Kanye West isn’t going anywhere. – JP
The Brandon Flowers who sings in “Crossfire” is not the same Brandon Flowers who used to rock guyliner, pick fights with other bands, and brag that Sam’s Town was one of the greatest rock albums of the past twenty years (it was, and so was Hot Fuss, but that’s besides the point). Credit his return to Mormonism or his growing family (he and his wife have two kids with another on the way), but Flowers has toned down the whole rock star persona. Instead, his music centers on themes of redemption. “Tell the devil that he can go back from where he came,” he sings on “Crossfire”, the most epic track from the understated Flamingo. – HS
Provo, Utah’s very own Neon Trees have had a good year. Breaking into the music scene in a big way, their debut single “Animal” has spent an impressive 26 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 13 and even clawing its way to the Alternative Songs chart summit in September. Comparisons to new wave pop from the early ’80s are almost immediate with its infectious use of synth and hand claps. “Animal,” with its popping melody and intelligent lyrics, showcases the breakout band’s engaging sound and its lead singer’s distinct vocals. – CH
2010 was Rihanna’s year. “Umbrella” was the song that separated her from the pack of similarly marketed one name pop starlets, but when everyone’s favorite good girl gone bad tried to go serious on Rated R, no one cared. That is until the up tempo “Rude Boy” was released. The success of “Rude Boy” laid the groundwork for Loud, a collection of ballads and Caribbean flavored dance tunes of which “Only Girl (In The World)” was the queen. – HS
Ten years ago, at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, Eminem led an army of blond young men in white shirts and jeans into Radio City Music Hall as he rapped “The Real Slim Shady”. That moment symbolized how Eminem had, for better or worse, given a voice to a generation of alienated youth. “Not Afraid” is for those people and anyone else who is in a dark place. “We’ll walk this road together, through the storm,” he says. Think of it as a white rapper’s “Beautiful”. – HS
Dialing down their usual guitar-heavy rock’n'roll, Paramore achieved their most commercially successfully single to date with easily their most restrained. “The Only Exception” is beautiful in its simplicity. Critics quickly took note of front woman Hayley Williams’ sturdy vocal delivery, noting her ability to connect with the listener emotionally. Paramore proved their musicianship by turning what could’ve been a sappy, trite ballad into an honest and heartfelt look at love. – CH
“Teenage Dream” was meant to be a Katy Perry song for people who hated Katy Perry. Instead of being annoying, trite and revolve around stereotypes, it was impossibly catchy and celebrated the universal feeling of eternal youth. But, like other songs created in a laboratory with the sole intent of being a monster hit (read: “I Gotta Feeling” or “TiK ToK”), the song soon wore out its welcome and all the Katy haters just ended up hating her more than before. But unlike those other annoying songs, “Teenage Dream” has value, evident in the Resucuers’ unironic and beautiful cover and the fact that if another singer had the song, no one would have hated it as much. – HS
Ellie Goulding described “Starry Eyed” as a song about feeling a natural high, and it’s no surprise she pulls that off with ease considering the lighter-than-air nature of her small but growing body of work. Balancing the intelligent dance pop Europe is currently demanding from its pop artists with a dash of folk pop, Goulding led the way in making music that appeals to a wide audience. “Starry Eyed” with its building but gentle beat was the most pop song the singer recorded, and it became her first top ten hit. – HS
Dance music isn’t a genre that’s known for emoting, especially if the song’s subject matter is something as trite as dancing, but Robyn managed to do that with the heartbreaking “Dancing On My Own”. The Swedish singer vividly describes the scene: Her in the corner and her true love across the dance floor with his “new friend”. Stilettos, broken bottles, and oblivious ex lovers be damned, Robyn is going to dance, even if it’s on her own with tears in her eyes. – HS
Surprisingly, “Cosmic Love” was the sixth single from Florence + the Machine’s critically acclaimed debut album Lungs. In a word, the song is audacious. It perfectly showcases everything the band achieves so masterfully on the album: layered with deeply rich harmonies and sweeping orchestration, emotionally complex, and palpable in its intensity.
Florence Welch, lead singer and co-writer of the track, said she is often hungover when she writes her best material, and “Cosmic Love” is no exception. Coming off a night of heavy drinking, it took her a mere 30 minutes to pen the track once she got started. The end result became the most acclaimed track on the near-perfect album, a thunderous ballad that truly feels out of this world. – CH
Thematically, Kele’s solo debut, The Boxer, was the healing balm to Intimacy‘s pain and hearbreak. It was an album about finding inner strength, believing in yourself, and looking forward. “Everything You Wanted” was perhaps Kele’s only look back and the most emotional performance of his career.
Setting aside the harsh, blaring synthesizers, Kele employs tribal drums, a massive sing-a-long chorus, and piercing lyrics to get his point across. “I could have given you everything you wanted, everything you needed,” he laments, staring straight into the camera with tears streaming down his face. It’s hard to believe those are fake. – HS
The release of The Social Network forced us to examine the role social media plays in our modern society, and M.I.A.’s digital freakout music provides the unofficial soundtrack. Drowning in post-apocalyptic MySpace imagery, she defiantly snarls, “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not.” Considering the airbrushed life most people live online, her statement comes across as a call for logging off and living life for no one but yourself.
Unfortunately, her message failed to match reality when she came across as a pretentious poser following a scathing New York Times Magazine article. Although critics argued that it killed her street cred, songs like “XXXO” were evidence that Maya not being the anti-establishment freedom fighter she once was isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rapping about Twitter and Tarintino over a beat catchier than bird flu, “Bird Flu”, or “Paper Planes”, M.I.A. makes pretty good pop for an anti-pop star. – HS
3. Cold War – Janelle Monae
“Cold War” is the confession of an underground artist unwilling to sell out or give up what makes her special just to be mainstream. “If you want to be free, below the ground’s the only place to be,” Janelle Monae sings. Despite the tear that glides down her face in the music video, Monae is sure of herself. “You better know what you’re fighting for,” she urges.
Her future-retroism is reminiscent of vintage OutKast or alternate reality Amy Winehouse, but she remains completely true to herself. In a pop landscape where being obsessively unique is quickly becoming the norm and bordering on being boring, Monae actually pulls it off. – HS
2. Telephone – Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce
The Fame Monster was Lady Gaga keeping her promise to be a true pop artist. It was dark and deep, something her debut album was not. The only exception was “Telephone”, her collaboration with Beyonce.
While the rest of the EP dealt with death, romance, and fear, “Telephone” seemed like just another pop song that could have been recorded by any number of pop stars. It wasn’t until a rough, unfinished, and highly autotuned demo by such a pop star surfaced that you realized that Gaga took the song to another level that the likes of Britney Spears simply could not.
On the surface, “Telephone” is about turning off the phone and partying, but in the context of the storyline of The Fame Monster, it’s so much more. Gaga’s character isn’t just dancing, she’s running from a bad romance, from a controlling boyfriend who’s just like a dad. She isn’t dancing for fun, she’s dancing for her life. – HS
1. Love the Way You Lie – Eminem feat. Rihanna
You knew Eminem had a hit on his hands when people who usually quote Ke$ha or Miley Cyrus in their Facebook statuses start quoting one of his songs. Sure, most of those people were quoting Rihanna’s hook, but they were still listening to an Eminem song. Despite Eminem being around for over a decade now, “Love The Way You Lie” was the first song of his that found its way onto many peoples’ iPods and it marked a return to relevance for the 2000′s biggest selling artist.
Misogyny has always been a favorite theme of Slim Shady’s, but rather than use the same tired, vile, and violent clichés, he made a haunting, powerful record that condemned domestic violence. His raps are graphic and raw, and although he apologizes, he reveals that he doesn’t really mean it. It’s not as if Rihanna’s character is fooled by it though. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that’s alright because I like the way it hurts,” she sings. She knows he hurts her, she knows he’s lying, but she can’t leave.
Some critics condemned the song, saying it glorified domestic violence, but the very inclusion of Rihanna on the record renders that argument void. Just eighteen months removed from her encounter with Chris Brown, Rihanna brought authenticity and pain that few other singers could have.
It’s the rawness and brutal reality of the song that does the condemning, because Eminem never explicitly does. Still, as the house burns down in the Joseph Kahn directed music video, the anti-violence message is clear. Remaining atop the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks and receiving five Grammy nominations, it’s safe to say the song and it’s message penetrated pop culture, becoming a counter-intuitive but very effective public service announcement. – HS
Graphic by Nick Smith
Text by Chase Hilton, James Porter, and Hunter Schwarz
Tags: Beach House, Beyonce, Brandon Flowers, Cee Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, Eminem, Florence + the Machine, Janelle Monae, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Kele, Kid Cudi, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Local Natives, M.I.A., MGMT, Mumford & Sons, Neon Trees, Paramore, Rihanna, Robyn
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