My Picks: The Top Twenty-Five Songs of 2010, Part V

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1 Jul 2011, 11:32

No. 5-1 Primer: Kanye West officially conquers hip-hop, gives reason for concern that something in Chicago's water has been turning its leading pop culture figures into unstoppable, sociopathic juggernauts; Deerhunter valiantly remain the lone holdouts in Stadium-ready Indie Rock; Flocka puts Dr. Lex Luger's steroid injections to good use by flexing Dirty South muscles, second only to real life experiences from the past year in being responsible for widening the "hood credibility" chasm between him and Jay-Z ; Janelle Monae matches compelling, perfectly-controlled exterior persona with compelling, perfectly-controlled feminist self-affirmation, effectively ends Lady Gaga's career; Titus Andronicus overcome over-exaggerated self-importance, self-destructive tendencies, joneses for arduous 19th century spoken word passages (to name a few things) to release the definitive song of 2010.

5. Gorgeous. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

To every major music publication: how did you guys fuck this up? “Power?” “Runaway?” Great songs and all, but c’mon! They’re all pretenders in comparison to the lyrical prowess on display in “Gorgeous.” And by “they” I mean every hip-hop song released in 2010, and probably in recent memory. So let's not kid ourselves: "Gorgeous" is, bar none, THE best track off the year's best album.

Returning to the song's lyrics, I need to be clear: they are of devastating quality, and consequently, a big deal. I mean, no one has ever doubted Kanye’s skills as a producer. The only limits appearing to halt Kanye's conquest of the title as Premiere Hip-Hop Artist involved his at-times deficient skills as an emcee, a criticism increasingly reinvigorated in the wake of 808’s and Heartbreak. (Even I’m not a fan of most of Kanye’s lyrics on 808's, and I still consider the album highly underrated). But yeah, “Gorgeous?” This is a fucking clinic. Even more, it’s a drastic elevation of the limits we once thought would forever prevent Kanye from joining the Biggies, Pac’s, and Hova’s of rap lore. In astonishing fashion, Kanye has in one fell swoop re-charted his career's course as an emcee. This is like Nas’s career moving in reverse, where The Firm and It Was Written are the preceding LP's, and this fucking album is Illmatic, while “Gorgeous” is “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.”

Blame the Wu-Tang. The presence of Raekwon appears to be the inspiration for Kanye hurdling one of the most stalwart nemeses to his lyrical abilities, his tendency to revert to cute, occasionally sing-song rhymes (see: "Gold Digger") and mind-numbingly blithe bad poetry, of which even a fourth grade would be ashamed (see: "Love Lockdown"). Perhaps fueled by his well-known pathological competitiveness, Kanye simply refuses to let himself be upstaged by the Hall of Fame emcee guest-versing on his track. Like LeBron taking over against the aging reigning champion Detroit Pistions in the Fourth Quarter of the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals' decisive game, Kanye eliminates all traces of weakness as an emcee during an unstoppable three-verse lyrical rampage. Personally, I'm fairly certain my jaw literally dropped halfway into that first verse, when Kanye just straight-up takes charge. ("All them fallin'/for the love of ballin'/got caught with thirty rocks/the cop look like Alec Baldwin").

More importantly, Yeezy uses “Gorgous” as his one deviation from the major lyrical motif that dominates the rest of the album: himself. (Okay there is the whole second verse, but really, we only ask for so much--this is Kanye West we're talking about). Instead, Kanye manages to contain his ego on this track, channeling his rage and relating his own struggles to a broader commentary on society, which includes some of the most biting, hard-edged social criticism any hip-hop artists has unleashed in years. ("Face it Jerome get more time than Brandon/and at the airport they took off all through my bag and tell me that 'it's random'"). The result is a head-spinning collection of couplets, coming in such a flurry and often out of nowhere that cutting lines (“She told the director she trying to get into school/He said ‘take them glasses off and get in the pool”") leave the listeners’ neck snapping with whiplash as he frantically pushes rewind to confirm what he just heard.

In its own right, Rae’s final verse does not diminish "Gorgeous's" excellence. His tempo matching the blues squalor of the backing guitar, the Chef provides one of the greatest concluding lines in hip-hop history, speaking directly to the young people in the most need of guidance in America: “to every young man/this is the plan/learn from others/like your brothers/Rae and Kanye.” It’s truly inspiring stuff, coming from an album produced by the man who during the past two years has only earned a reputation for inspiring antipathy in the American public.

Kanye of course deserves the accolades he’s received for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s other tracks. Songs like “Power,” “Monster,” and “Runaway” are excellent in their own right, but the additional production flourishes on these tracks are noticeable in contrast to the gritty, bare-knuckled lyrical anthem that is “Gorgeous.” On an album overwhelmed with classic tracks, "Gorgeous" attains a level of greatness that is unmatched.

4. Desire Lines. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest.

"Desire Lines," straight-up, is the most powerful blast of rock and roll released in 2010. In addition, it provides final proof that Deerhunter, while positioning themselves as this generation’s finest Indie Rock chameleons, are destined to follow in the footsteps of the Who, Led Zeppelin, Sonic Youth, and Smashing Pumpkins as the official standard-bearers of the twenty-first century Rock Anthem. What else could one call "Desire Lines?"

Shit, “Nothing Ever Happened” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and against all odds, Deerhunter may actually have improved upon it with this instant classic.
The way the band completely removes any doubt about the sonic prowess on deck, before Lockett Pundt (not even the band’s lead singer!) even gets halfway through the first verse, is downright astonishing. Somewhere, Tom Verlaine is seriously pissed off, seeing as this shit belonged on Marquee Moon somewhere between the title track and “Guiding Light.” “Desire Lines’” opening half revels in Pundt’s gorgeous, uplifting lyrics and melody (“Walking free/Whoa-oh/Come with me/Whoa-oh”) while the second half features Bradford Cox absolutely laying waste to Television’s legacy of being the only band capable of THAT kind of transcendent, ethereal solo. All the while Moses Archuleta and Josh Fauver reaffirm their rightful claim to being the most underrated rhythm section in modern rock; the time-shift that occurs at the song's halfway point is like some futuristic, science fiction monolith of a machine changing course and propelling itself into the stratosphere. For the last three-and-a-half minutes, Deerhunter cease being merely a band---sonic juggernaut would be a more apt characterization.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about “Desire Lines” is that, despite being nearly seven minutes long, this is simply not a song you can stop listening to once it gets underway. Not a moment of the track is wasted, not a single note is unnecessary to fulfilling the song’s grand design. It’s just seven all-too-short minutes of exquisite, anthemic guitar rock. So the next time you stumble across some nostalgia-obsessed music fan complaining on an internet forum or blog about how “today’s artists are nowhere near as good as they were when I was growing up,” put that smug piece of shit in his place and give him a link to Deerhunter’s live performance of “Desire Lines.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW2jOA6uIaM

3. Hard in Da Paint. Waka Flocka Flame, Flockavelli.

Militant, ignorant, defiant. Ladies and gentlemen, the hip-hop anthem of 2010. No wait, make that the hip-hop AND punk anthem of 2010. Flocka's pulling double-duty on this bad boy.

Allow me a moment to discuss the only hip-hop artist that received more hype than Waka Flocka Flame in 2010, Odd Future. There still seems to be some confusion among the American public about how to properly evaluate a hip-hop artist's merit as a "controversial" artist. First of all, Waka Flocka Flame doesn’t know who the fuck Odd Future is, and in all likelihood, he doesn’t give a fuck. Flocka heard Odd Future rap about raping bitches. The only people who rape bitches in Flocka’s hood are crackhead pussies who can’t get bitches on their own. Flocka heard Odd Future rap about being pissed off at their dads. Flocka has bigger shit to worry about, fuck, dude got shot this year when he was trying to get his car washed! Flocka heard Odd Future has a member whose mom shipped him off to boarding school. When Flocka’s little brother died he said “fuck school.”

While the music blogosphere has been collectively losing their shit over the perceived menace and villainy in Odd Future's fictional rhymes about molesting grandparents and other over-the-top behavior, they seem to have overlooked the fact that Flocka actually DID GET SHOT this past year in broad daylight. Which seems to me somewhat noteworthy, since "Hard in Da Paint" does, you know, prominently feature lyrics about "putting someone's ass to sleep"---"front yard, broad day, with the SK." At this point, I have absolutely no reason to doubt the man in regards to his willingness to actually follow through such a threat. And I'm also at least 90 percent certain that Flocka has used the line "Keep my dick hard, and you'll be smoking" in real life, probably on more than one occasion.

In a year when Odd Future began their takeover of the national consciousness (though not without good reason, might I add---the ultra-smooth Mike G. is undeniably a stud), they nonetheless paled in comparison to Waka Flocka Flame and this four-minute Dirty South blitzkrieg. The formula is simple: one-half Lex Luger’s gothic, Bombs Over Atlanta production, another half Flocka and his backing posse’s swaggering menace. A few of the song’s high points: first, those unrelenting, rapid-fire backing shouts (for lack of a better word) dominating the background exposition. Shit, the presence of hype emcees in rap is no new thing, but “Hard in Da Paint” breaks new ground in this area via the sheer omnipresence of those shouts, as much a part of the song as Flocka himself. Then there’s Flocka’s street-level lyrics (“I’ma die for this shawty man I swear to God!”), treating the listener like any other threatening figure in Flocka’s hood. Finally, there’s of course the production, a rumbling panzer attack of droning horns and, at the song’s conclusion, high-strung, shrieking synths worthy of providing the soundtrack for a land invasion of China. Between this track and "B.M.F.," Luger may have established himself as the most sociopathic hip-hop producer since Hank Shocklee.

The culmination of these effects is the listener’s full submersion into Flocka’s world. There is no compromise in this regard. Flocka doesn’t come to you, you come to him. You come to the busiest corner block in Atlanta’s worst ghetto, and meet face-to-face with its most brazen inhabitants. John Boehner would probably shit himself if he heard this song. And as for the rest of you out there living comfortably, complacently in your nice neighborhoods, be glad that there’s someone out there who’s still mad, still fucking angry as hell at the state of America, if for no other reason than that he’s forced to live his daily life in a part of the country that’s been dealt the short end of the stick for far too long.

2. Tightrope. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid.

A decade from now, critics will look back on 2010 as the year, among other things, that we learned what all the female pop music stars of the era, Lady Gaga, M.I.A., Katy Perry, wanted to be: Janelle Monae. The first time I laid eyes on Janelle Monae, with that tomahawk hairdo, that quizzical stare, that fucking impenetrable coolness, I knew what she was all about. Listening to “Tightrope” was only confirmation.
See, the problem with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and the like, is that they don’t treat their listeners with the proper respect. “I want you psycho/your vertical stick?” “Just one kiss/and baby I believe?” What the fuck is that shit? The modern-day woman, at least the ones that I know, they’re way above that. In what is increasingly becoming a (wo)man’s world, Janelle Monae provides the type of affirmation women, children, hell, everyone needs. Kanye would’ve never had to make My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy if he had heard this track. “Some people talk about ya/like they know all about ya,” Janelle muses knowingly over one of the most playful, funkiest grooves of 2010. (Hear that, Kanye? You need this bitch on speed-dial.)

If nothing else, "Tightrope" deserves acclaim for the way Monae displays flashes of sub-zero cool with lines like these, dismissing her critics with a smirk, rather than a scowl. The secret to that ice-cold, impenetrable demeanor? She’s not human. “Something like a terminator,” Janelle herself suggests, before informing the listener, “Ya know you can’t get too high!/And you can’t get too low!” followed by a Springsteen-esque count-off signaling a musical interlude. As a one-woman Rally to Restore Sanity, "Tightrope" excels in moments like these--I mean, who knew sanity could be this funky!?

This Janelle Monae is something pop music has not seen in ages. Listening to this track, I’m reminded of an old throwaway line Sportcenter anchor Kenny Mayne would use to praise an ultra-clutch, unflappable athlete in the midst of a great performance: “(Player X) is unfazed by the simplicity of this game.” Listening to this track, I find myself returning to Mike G.’s descriptions of his own impenetrable coolness under fire on “Everything That’s Yours.” I find myself returning to Ariel Pink’s brilliance in showing, rather than telling the listener, its fundamental message. On “Tightrope,” Monae radiates to the listener the sense that this is an artist unfazed by the simplicity of life’s game. Radiates just how iceberg cool, complex like math, and smooth like jazz she truly is. Radiates, rather than speaks, to communicate with the listener, because she knows how meaningless unsubstantiated promises have become in this new millennium due to those who have failed to “walk the walk.”

Accordingly, Monae’s foremost moment of zen she delivers to the listener arrives without subtext or pretense—as plaintive as a song’s message can be: “Now shut up!” America should listen, and follow accordingly. Swim, walk, go hard in the paint---whatever. Just give “Tightrope” another spin and follow the ArchAndroid’s lead---Monae’s already proven she's light years ahead of the rest of us.


1. A More Perfect Union/Titus Andronicus Forever. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor.

(For more on “A More Perfect Union,” check Part Five of my Twenty Favorite Songs list)

2010 was a year in which America’s young people could not afford to grow complacent. The Tea Party won sweeping victories in the mid-term elections. Obama’s popularity was plummeting. The economy continued to stagnate. If there was an event one could consider a microcosm for the year in general, it was probably the B.P. Oil Spill. You know, where a British Petroleum gasline exploded, killing dozens of BP employees, killing untold numbers of wildlife, and ruining the local economy of an entire region. Followed, of course, by the BP CEO refusing to take any responsibility for his company's poisoning of an entire body of water. From his yacht.

So when Patrick Stickles offered his own version of a classic lyric, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!” on “A More Perfect Union,” he might as well have been speaking for a generation of young Americans caught in a crossfire they didn’t understand. Getting their guts smashed in by corporate and political leaders past the point of even being able to feign concern for the average American citizen

In 2004, TV on the Radio looked around and saw this generation as, in essence, a collective of desperate youth and bloodthirsty babes. Six years later, precious little had changed as we staggered into this new decade. And as we scoured the popular music landscape of 2010 for the emergent voice of this momentous, shifting period in American history, it only made sense that, of the thousands of potential candidates out there, who else but Titus Andronicus, the most desperate and bloodthirsty of them all, rose above the pack in delivering this ravaged, flailing Last Stand of an anthem to the unwashed masses.

Why is “A More Perfect Union” the best song of 2010? Because Washington, D.C., New York City, L.A., and Chicago deserve a better class of criminal. Because Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich were prepping their 2012 Presidential campaigns, and we sensed the enemy rustling around in the trees. Because none of us shall be saved, and this generation might end up having to change the world, even if it's just looking for a new New Jersey. Because as popular culture grows increasingly fractured, the boys need something to rally around.

And most importantly, because the enemy is everywhere. And nobody seems to be worried yet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YCLBL4LEkc
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrp-v2tHaDo

Thanks for reading.

Kanye West
Deerhunter
Waka Flocka Flame
Janelle Monae
Titus Andronicus

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