tracks of the year, #2

December 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s the second part of my list (in no particular order!) of my favourite tracks of 2010. The posting of these might slow up for a while, since I’m off to Gloucestershire for a week on Thursday (if the trains are working) and probably won’t pack my laptop, but I’ll try my best to get as many of these done before the new year rings in as I can, anyway. Leave a comment if you agree/disagree/want to share anything with me!

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Janelle Monae – Oh Maker (buy album here, or the track here)

I could easily have picked other songs from The ArchAndroid to write about, but there’s already been a lot of attention paid to Tightrope and Cold War (especially its video, which I love), and this is my other favourite, although it’s more understated than the others – at first, anyway.

At the start, Monae sings over an acoustic guitar, and it feels almost out of place on her album, like she’s suddenly made a retreat to something safer, less interesting. But what starts off quiet and slightly droning – like the rainy day that it describes – suddenly becomes loud, showier than it was at first, and the images that she uses are unexpected and expansive without being jarring or pointless. She asks if the addressee knew that ‘this love would burn so yellow / becoming orange and in its time / explode from grey to black then bloody wine’. The lyrics don’t show off – but they also avoid sounding like anything staid, like any other pop songs.

I know that The ArchAndroid is meant to be part of a wider science fiction narrative that Monae has constructed, and it’s often been referred to as a concept album, but this track, and the other great songs on here, stands alone; the story of love and destruction that it tells unfolds, restrained and sad, amid quietly changing styles of production and instrumentation.

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Metric/The Clash at Demonhead – Black Sheep (buy Scott Pilgrim soundtrack here, although it’s got the Metric version on. As far as I can tell, you can’t buy the version with Brie Larson singing anywhere. Boo!)

I prefer the version of this that’s used in the Scott Pilgrim film (which is where the video clip above is taken from, although it’s an extended version of the scene), with Brie Larson singing, over the version that’s just done by Metric, although both are good – it’s slightly less produced (although obviously it still doesn’t sound much like a live performance), and I possibly prefer Larson’s voice. I’m not even sure when Metric put this out, but the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack came out this summer, so I feel justified including it here. Every time I listen to it, I just think, how could I not?

It’s got such a great opening – in the film it works really well having Envy start it with “hello again, friend of a friend”, considering what you’re about find out about Ramona and Todd on bass’s relationship – but, just thinking about the song by itself, I love the way that the vocals sound kind of staccato, almost spoken. It sounds like a challenge. Not sure quite what the lyrics mean, if I’m honest (and neither do the people over at songmeanings.net, but then they never do), but when I hear her sing, it’s clearer. It is a challenge.

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The Hold Steady – We Can Get Together (buy album here, or buy the song here)

Surely the year’s most surprising namecheck has to be in this song, when Craig Finn sings about 90s indiepop heroes Heavenly. But it doesn’t feel like he’s just referencing them for the sake of it – part of their story gets woven into the song, and they become a way of remembering somebody else, somewhere else, something that they are a reminder of.

I don’t think this is thought of as one of The Hold Steady’s best albums – I certainly haven’t got through it much – but I keep returning to this song. I think it’s the opening – there’s something about the repetition of ‘heaven’ in it that tugs at me. Most pop songs seem to rhyme, and so does this one – but when words, or parts of words, are deftly repeated, it helps something paint itself inside my head. These are the two lines that open the song:

She played “Heaven Isn’t Happening”, she played “Heaven Is a Truck”
She said Heavenly was cool, I think they were from Oxford…

It shows a kind of sideways thought process, a way of remembering different things that ‘she’ liked through word-association, rather than by thinking about all of the songs by one band that she liked, or the music that she used to listen to the most. It doesn’t feel like wordplay, but the repetition still helps it become memorable, still works like internal rhyme. The backing vocals (on the studio version) that go ‘baa-baa-baa’ are beautiful, and fade out at the end after the rest of the song has finished – they’re never overpowering or too insistent, which makes a lot of difference in a song, like this, that is not a big dumb pop anthem; it’s too clever for that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those songs; but this one talks about other bands and their myths of origin, about growing up and old, about imagining what you can’t really remember. It’s about listening to music, without being self-congratulatory, nostalgic without being shit.

I listened to it so many times this summer that I’ve created a whole kind of internal life around it; when I hear it I just imagine being in Oxford, sitting on Headington Hill, listening to it on repeat, even though that never even happened.

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