A song that bridged the decade split—some, like Pitchfork, were ahead of the curve enough to feature it last year, while the rest of us caught-up on re-release—“Swim” is something special despite, well, not being all that special on the surface. It’s a power pop song with a very simple chord progression and a nicely-reverberated vocal line. Ho-hum?
Hardly. Check out the bridge break, a wonderful cool-down before diving back into the fuzzed-up riffage that drives the song. And don’t forget the single guitar note, playing during the chorus, that is almost like a clarion call to jump up and down and annoy your neighbours below. And that vocal? It’s so barely constrained, so top-of-the-lungs, so gloriously unsunstainable that you’re almost relieved when the song ends after three short minutes (and that it gets a nice break in the middle).
It took The National five years to find a song worthy of replacing “Mr. November” as the climatic close of their live set. And just like how “Mr. November” summed up everything wonderful about The National circa Alligator, the magnificent “Terrible Love” is like a four-minute love letter from one of America’s greatest bands in the here-and-now: every bit as passionate as they were when you first met them, but in a more mature, compelling place.
The song exists in two recorded versions. The album take surprised me with its restraint but I’ve grown quite fond of it over time, whereas the newly-released “Alternate Take” on High Violet’s expanded edition nobly tries to be an epic and doesn’t quite hit the mark. No, the song’s definitive version is still live, where the band makes the song sound like the most indestructible and most the breakable thing ever, both at the same time.
For each of his albums, Kanye West has released two advance singles. The poppier, more accessible track comes second, preceded by something more hip hop, but also more personal. It’s generally on the first single that West lays out his themes for the record or, at the very least, the direction his bravado is going to be pointing this time around. But with all eyes on West following Taylor-gate, there has probably never been another time in his career—except maybe with “Through the Wire”—when there was more at stake with a lead single.
“Power” didn’t become a radio hit, and it’s hardly the most boundary-pushing track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But it’s a showstopper—a clarion call that West is back, West means business, and that he can bash beats with the best of them. Forget “Monster”; the album’s real behemoth is that thundering drum line, matched perfectly with choirs, hand-claps and that killer King Crimson sample. I’m still not quite sure what he has against SNL—considering he even performed the song on the show—but the bottom line is that his opening boast is right on the money: this is superhero theme music.
Pretty and powerful isn’t the easiest combination to pull off, especially when your canvas of choice is synth-pop. But “Zebra” sounds like a creation from another planet, where such a combination comes simple, effortless. With a two-note guitar pattern guiding the way, it takes off into the stratosphere with aits beautiful, haunting melody.
It’s arguable whether the recorded version of “Zebra” is even the song’s definitive version—there’s a case to be made for the wonderful PS22 Chorus on that one—but it’s Victoria Legrand’s performance that makes it so spectacular. Her voice sounds ancient and knowing, making the song’s statements sound more like profound proclamations. The song would still be pretty and powerful without her, but she makes it sound wise.
I’d been following Arcade Fire’s setlists on their July tour, checking out what new songs from their forthcoming album they were test-driving. They played most of The Suburbs’ standouts, so it was a real shock when I finally got the album and I discovered “Sprawl II,” which on a single listen was easily the greatest song on an album of pretty great songs. Why the hell hadn’t the band played it yet?
I got to see the first ever performance of “Sprawl II” a week later at Montreal’s Osheaga festival. Since then, I’ve watched countless videos of the song live, and the band always struggles with it at first—it’s such a shift in sound for them, it’s tough to fill a live mix with synths, and Regine’s vocal is more impassioned than precise, which can leave things a bit off at first. But every time, the song suddenly finds its bearings halfway through, as if the band rediscovers what a magical piece of work they’re playing. Win sometimes tries to steal a kiss from his wife when it’s over; a fair gesture when she’s spent the entire song stealing the hearts of everyone singing along.
I’m not sure whether Carl Wilson was the first to compare/contrast the Pavement reunion this year with the return of Superchunk, but his positioning of the latter as the “anti-slacker” interpretation of 1990s indie rock is the one I recall. And he’s got a point: even with Pavement having been knighted as the Gen-X overlords of taste and merit, there was something a bit soulless about their whole reunion gig, as great as it was to hear those songs again (and I say this as someone who saw them twice).
In contrast, Superchunk not only attacked 2010 with a bite of joy in their teeth, but with a great record of new material that was far better than it needed to be to generate goodwill. “Digging for Something” could coast on its chunky guitars and hummable melody, but it ends up the year’s greatest party song because it’s anxious as hell. These characters are desperately seeking something to crash into, self-aware that there’s more to a Saturday night’s quest than merely looking for a good time. The need for feeling and the desperation to get it—”I don’t know how to dance this slow but I can try,” one of my favourite lyrics of the year— recalls Springsteen 30 years earlier, so sure there’s something happening somewhere. We just haven’t quite figured out where that is yet.
Of course pop music eats itself.
That’s to be expected in a genre designed to appeal to our base rather than our brains, where cold, precise science can produce Pavlovian dance moves to keep us satisfied. Maybe it’s always been this way, but for some reason pop music seemed more cynical than usual this year. It’s no coincidence that so many of this year’s biggest pop hits sound the same. Several of them—“Tik Tok,” “California Gurls,” “Dynamite”—were written by one person, and share similar melodies and beats. “Dynamite” dines on the same dance-hall trick as “Only Girl in the World” and “We R Who We R,” pulling out the beat in the first half of the chorus to get the club crowd ramped up and desperate for its return. In 2010, it was as if pop music’s curves, points and edges were been feasted upon, leaving only a flat, boring landscape of noise left behind.
Fitting that Ke$ha’s year-end cash-in record is called Cannibal.
We’re never going to rid our lives of of pop music, nor would we ever want to. Especially in the Internet age, we’re desperate for shared experience, something universally palatable that we can discuss, dance and dissent over. But is it wrong for us to demand something with a fucking heartbeat behind it? To ask for a record that gives us something to dance about rather than just something to dance to? To hear something human in the age of pop machines?
That it was Robyn who answered this call is a bit ironic, considering that one of her best songs—“Fembot”—is explicitly about being a robot. But her robots have feeling. Over the course of three mini-albums, the Swedish singer became pop music’s conscience this year, a regular reminder of what the genre can and should be. In particular, her trifecta of stunningly-great singles—“Dancing on my Own,” “Hang with Me” and “Indestructible”—made for the year’s best pop narrative, a journey from heartbreak through friendship and then closing with the sort of hardened redemption that one wishes all great love affairs could inspire.
But the heartbreak hit hardest. “Dancing on my Own” is so desperate that it almost can’t contain itself. Its noise and fury do their best to mask the shattered self screaming on the inside, but ultimately fail miserably. There’s a human being beneath that synth line and that stunning chorus, dancing not because she wants to; at her breaking point, it’s all she has left. “Dancing on my Own” is proof that real emotion can’t be contained by a beat and a bassline, but also a welcome reminder that those same tools that flatten the pop landscape can also bring it to life. And that’s why it towers over that pop landscape—nay, music landscape—of 2010.
Next week: albums.
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