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Ten from ’10 

The industry's hurting, but the music keeps getting better

I've got a feeling I'm forgetting something.

With megatons of music being released constantly, nearly all of which is inexpensively accessible through streaming music services like MOG and Rhapsody, anyone with time to invest would be hard-pressed not to find a bunch of new favorites each year.

In putting together this year's Top 10 recordings, I've chosen to once again focus on songs rather than albums, and here's why:

a) That's the way most of us "consume" music these days.

b) All albums vary in quality from song to song, which makes it tricky to rank albums of consistent quality against collections that include brilliant songs alongside others that fail to connect.

c) You're not going to check out an entire album based on my recommendation, anyway.

It's also worth noting that these are not my picks for the "best" songs of 2010. Maybe it's an ongoing aversion to Allan Bloom's obsession with the Western canon, but I've never really been convinced that there are objective criteria for what's universally best in anything. So rather than fall into the abyss of trying to fit in with some popular or critical consensus, I've gone with the tracks that mattered most to me personally this past year.

The following artists, many of whom have been interviewed in these pages, may or may not appear on other publications' year-end lists. And a few of them are fairly obscure. But if you go to the online version of this article, you'll also find a video for each song that you can check out for yourself. (And if so moved, please don't hesitate to post your own Top 10 there.)

One last caveat: In the rare instance where a song appeared in some form before 2010 — Fitz & the Tantrums, for instance, released an earlier recording of "Breakin' the Chains of Love" on a 2009 EP — I've chosen to err on the side of inclusion. The Grammys do this with their "came to prominence" loophole, and it works great.

You'll also note that the list is arranged as a countdown to No. 1 in order to build suspense.


10. OK, this list should have gone to 11, but we're going to save that for "Eleven from '11." So let's just make No. 10 a tie:

Broken Bells, "High Road"

Shins frontman James Mercer and Brian Joseph Burton (aka Danger Mouse) are a surprisingly perfect pairing as Broken Bells, whose eponymous debut album brings out Mercer's experimental side and Burton's pop instincts. "High Road" is its hands-down high point, an atmospheric, plaintive and strangely uplifting track that never gets old.

Nick Curran & the Lowlifes, "Reform School Girl"

The title track from Curran's latest album is a perfect reinvention of the previously inimitable Phil Spector/girl group sound. A punk rock devotee who, against all odds, ended up recording and touring with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Curran reverses the "Leader of the Pack" formula, leaving the bad-girl-loving narrator in the lurch. It's a surprising departure for Curran, and one worth pursuing.


9. Grace Potter & the Nocturals, "Tiny Light"

Grace Potter and her group were named one of Rolling Stone's "Best New Bands of 2010," an honor that overlooked the fact that they've been together since 2003. The 27-year-old Potter had already amassed countless critical hosannas for her stunning vocals, which are as powerful as Janis Joplin's, but without the broken-glass rasp, and she also knows her way around a Hammond B-3. Over the course of five minutes, "Tiny Light" travels from moody verses and uplifting choruses to an extended instrumental outro that pits Scott Tournet's electric guitar against Potter's worldless wailing. A breakthrough single, and deservedly so.


8. Plan B, "Stay Too Long"

After establishing himself in the world of British hip-hop and dubstep, Plan B surprised fans by letting out his inner crooner. "Stay Too Long" shifts between Lenny Kravitz-style retro soul and rap interludes that are vaguely reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine. A Top 10 hit in his native U.K., it has yet to be released over here.


7. Pigeon John, "Dude, It's On"

The sole SoCal member of the Bay Area-based Quannum Projects collective, underground hip-hop artist Pigeon John covered a lot of musical terrain on this year's Dragon Slayer album. But "Dude, It's On" is the true standout, a down-tempo slice of pop brilliance that rhymes Motel 6 and Chick-O-Sticks. Seriously, what more could you want?


6. Dessa, "Dixon's Girl"

It's not much, but my money's on Doomtree Collective emcee Dessa. "Dixon's Girl" channels Steve Reich's cool minimalism and Erykah Badu's smoldering soulfulness, filtering them through the brainy poeticism of an artist with a degree in philosophy and a university gig teaching hip-hop. Bonus points for the clarinet arrangement that leads off the track.


5. Everything Everything, "MY KZ, YR BF"

There's been no shortage of bands resurrecting the ghost of XTC over the last decade, from the ultra-polished version offered by Franz Ferdinand to the annoyingly angular approach of the Futureheads. But Everything Everything gets the balance just right. This is one of four singles the band released prior to its debut album, which hit the U.K. in August and is set for stateside release in early 2011.


4. Cee Lo Green, "Fuck You"

The eff-good hit of the summer, Cee Lo's hilarious single makes you wonder why no one did it before, or at least did it so brilliantly. Among the song's primary pleasures is Cee Lo's delivery of one of the sweetest fuck you's in the history of pop. After first breaking the song on the Internet, he released a sanitized-for-your-protection radio version with the lyric changed to "forget you," which wasn't nearly as fun. In addition to a finely honed instinct for lovable outrageousness, Cee Lo has the chops of a great soul singer. And with lyrics like "If I were richer / I'd still be with her / Ain't that some shit," it's actually class-conscious. When was the last time you could say that about a pop hit?


3. Die Antwoord, "Enter the Ninja"

Early this year, long before "Fuck You" and "Bed Intruder" were even glimmers in the all-seeing eye of YouTube, South African hip-hop surrealists Die Antwoord went viral in a big WTF-kinda way with "Enter the Ninja." At the time, there was much debate about whether the heavily accented, hilariously weird, undeniably original and surprisingly skillful Afrikaners were "authentic," as though that were the point. Fetchingly bowl-coiffed chanteuse Yo-Landi Vi$$er and her insufficiently clothed cohort Ninja (aka Watkin Tudor Jones) have unleashed a bizarrely endearing hybrid of District 9 aesthetics, hip-hop theatrics, blank parody and art-school excess, that's no less fake than Eminem or the Beastie Boys. The group released its debut album on Interscope in October, but "Enter the Ninja" is where it all began.


2. Fitz & the Tantrums, "Breakin' the Chains of Love"

L.A.'s Fitz & the Tantrums specialized in sharp-dressed soul in the tradition of Otis Redding, Martin Fry and Mayer Hawthorne. Uneven as the band's debut album may be, "Breakin' the Chains of Love" is a flawless three minutes of funk-pop pleasures.


1. Janelle Monáe, "Cold War"

"This is a Cold War / You better know what you're fighting for," sings Janelle Monáe in the chorus to the year's best single, which was also the year's best video, starring the year's most promising artist. Monáe's lyrical call to arms is driven home by her breathtaking vocals and airtight instrumental arrangements that add up to a remarkable work by a soulful pop diva whose artistic and vocal range is only matched by her kinetic energy, impeccable taste and unstoppable talent.

bill@csindy.com

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