While there are many great dance songs about breakups, they’re usually blissful or angry, not contemplative. Part of what made Swim such a compelling record is the way that Dan Snaith managed to create a groove-based dance album without abandoning his intelligent, thoughtful approach to lyric-based electronic music.
“Odessa’s” beat is good enough that most probably won’t even pay attention to the lyrics, but when you dive into his to the edge-of-the-end words, the song’s twitchy, tightly-wound spiraling bassline hits even harder. When I interviewed Snaith earlier this year, he explained that the story is inspired by a real-life couple, and you can hear that intimacy in the way its protagonist twists and turns over how to regretfully bring this part of her life to a close.
I love a good fakeout, and the opening 25 seconds of “Bottled in Cork” more than fits the bill: it makes it sound like we’re getting another raw, punky, political Ted Leo track before it cuts out and the distortion is replaced by some of the warmest acoustic guitars to be found in 2010.
What follows is the year’s best tourist’s tale, a song for thirty-somethings trying to play younger games; “A loner in a world full of kids, egos and ids,” as he puts it. The vocal mix is maybe the song’s smartest move; by separating the lines, it almost creates a call-and-answer, an internal debate over one’s changing self-perception as we bounce across Europe. And it all closes with that wonderful refrain that everyone at Matador 21 in Vegas—where this song kept reappearing all weekend long—couldn’t stop humming: “Tell the bartender, I think I’m falling in love.” (The song’s video is pretty great too, but won’t play embedded—view it here.)
Is it unfair to consider a 25-minute song for this list? Maybe. There’s no question that “Impossible Soul’s” length gives it an extra heft by default compared to many of the other “best of 2010” contenders. Then again, are any of these other artists even attempting—let alone pulling off—a multi-part electronic song suite that’s longer than most EPs? Didn’t think so.
“Impossible Soul” is not an easy listen, even if I was initially impressed by how easy its individual parts go down. But with time, and patience, it reveals itself as a culmination of a creative process Stevens began with Illinois. That album was driven equally by his sonic ambition and his poetic, intimate lyricism, but Stevens seems to have spent the subsequent years figuring out whether the former alone is enough to make a compelling artistic vision. “Impossible Soul” is about as glorious as a “yes” can sound.
The smallest creative decisions can transform a good song into a great one. The best song on Yeasayer’s complicated Odd Blood, “O.N.E.” would be one of the year’s strongest dance songs even if it ended three quarters of the way through. It’s playful, interesting and catchy, with memorable hooks that exist side-by-side with a wonderfully weird bed of sounds underneath (it’s almost Phil Collins-esque in its rhythmic choices—and that’s a compliment).
But then, in the final chorus, Anand Wilder’s voice is suddenly joined by Charles Keating, the band’s other lead vocalist. The counter-melody—“And it feels like being tranquilized, I know that separation kills us so”—is so mind-numbingly perfect that it’s amazing that the band resisted the urge to build an entire song around it. But that’s what makes “O.N.E.” so great: dance music should blow your mind and still leave you wanting so much more.
(I realized after posting this that the video edit of the song uses my favourite part twice; to quote The Simpsons, “You got greedy, Martin.” Here’s the original too.)
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