ZOMG!!!!! A year end list!! Last year I brought you 20, but 2010 was so musically swagnificent that I had to up the ante and bring 10 more jawns to the table. You may notice a few common themes/names on the list–I tried to avoid this phenomenon as much as possible last year (with only Raekwon making contributing more than one entry), but multiple contributions from a few different artists could not be ignored in 2010. And besides, who really needs rules like “only one song per artist?” These were my favorites, what good are restrictions (oh…oh being critical? being a critic? oh…yeah that…).
And speaking of favorites, critics and all that, a thought on the year end list in general. These lists are a funny thing. As a blogger, no matter how small your audience, you are aware that you have an audience. As a music listener, you have taste. Some taste may be inborn, most is developed (well, it’s probably all developed and then becomes ingrained in your identity and morphs to your “taste”). In creating any list, you attempt to balance your genuine preferences with how you’d like your taste to be perceived—anyone else who tells you otherwise is lying. The year end list lies somewhere between bedroom-private love and public illusion, a display that’s supposed to signify something about you (my main man Mr. Alex Hollender summed it up succinctly in a recent discussion as our “genes vs. our memes,” the ideological equivalent of our genome passed through time, influenced by the ages and those around us, if I am to understand it properly from our conversation). So, really, to compliment someone for their taste is ridiculous, because taste is a function of so many processes, public and private, firing at once that it becomes an almost empty signifier in a world as fragmented as the one in which we live. Anyway, just a thought that dawned on me as I dove into the very enjoyable process of culling these songs together. The things that cause list-making to be enjoyable are the very things about which I’m sort of complaining. Just elements to be aware of I suppose.
As you might imagine, if you’ve been keeping up with the blog at all, there are a few names that figure quite prominently into this list. No album covers this year, but I can’t turn my commentary off, so thoughts with each track. Hit the jump for the main event. UPDATE: For further year end list mania, here are 15 favorites that were on the cusp of inclusion and 10 more that missed the cut because I just discovered them.
30. “Ham in the Trap/All I Do Is Win Remix” by Gunplay – If Four Loko poured on a record player had a sound, it would be this golden YouTube nugget from Rick Ross affiliate Gunplay. It’s really something, a raging addiction I’ve passed on to a few friends–the video is mesmerizing and Gunplay’s solid flow used in the service of absolutely off the wall insane-suit energy makes for an enthralling run time. 2010 is the year of Odd Future, Kanye’s ego, and the hypeman turned mixtape superstar. Waka’s anthems might be more memorable (I am, of course, leaving “Hard in the Paint” off in favor of Gunplay’s remix, which isn’t necessarily superior–I just enjoyed it and listened to it more), but Gunplay brings an undeniable energy that borders on musical psychosis. Turn your snobbery off and be entertained.
29. “I’m Da Boss” by Zed Zilla – I’ve rambled endlessly about Rich Boy’s ability to slip and slide over beats, weaving his voice with the beat and bouncing against it as the moment demands. Zed Zilla’s voice is not nearly as memorable as Rich Boy’s, but his drawling cascade flow pushes enough cool momentum over the beat that you may actually believe (as I did) that he is indeed the boss after a few listens. And that beat just goes and goes and goes. A jam found in the summer that still slams in the winter.
28. “LDA” by Wafeek – So I’m no expert, but I’m not sure there have ever been any rap songs in which a rapper controlled his own army of zombie soldiers. In February or March, Wafeek described this song to me over the phone as one of the standouts on his Monster mixtape. Indeed, “LDA” (Living Dead Army) is an eerie, deftly crafted delivery of a refreshing, downright bizarre concept that probably works on some level as a parable, but stands on its own two as an entertaining piece of sci-fi rap (and if this isn’t a real thing yet, we need more of it).
27. “Love is Not Enough” by Yelawolf – Ah Yelawolf. No stranger to the halls of YML. 2010 wasn’t as big a year as I would have hoped for Mr. Wolf, but it was a solid start to what will, with any luck, be an exciting and unpredictable career. “Love is Not Enough” is an odd little number, with its perfectly crafted, melancholic, Organized Noize-esque beat and an accompanying story of heartbreak from Yelawolf. Its sound and the Yela’s sharp, driving flow deny “Love” entry into emo-rap territory, granting its story of seeming true love lost a resonant air of lover’s vexation. And the chorus is smooth as hell.
26. “Hold On” by Curren$y ft. Young Roddy and Trademark – It took me a while to get around to Curren$y, but, when I did, Pilot Talk I and, eventually, Pilot Talk II rarely left my rotation. “Hold On” off the latter is funky, island-tinged vision that allows Curren$y and co. to do what they do best: tell you how cool they are and how much weed they smoke. It’s simple. It’s dope. It works.
25. “Settle Down” by Kimbra – Can anything really be described as “odd-ball” or “left-field” in a world as fragmented as ours? Kimbra’s “Settle Down” is (I guess) a “quirky” number, building a slightly sinister tail of a girl’s monogamous dreams over a choir of multi-tracked Kimbras that gives way to a highly inventive, shimmering beat. “Settle Down” is surprising and addictive, revealing its many sections with splendid surprise, keeping you guessing and following along until the end. It’s a filtration of all that post-Amy Winehouse Brit-soul-revivalism into a song with better production and a more intriguing personality behind the mic (sorry, Duffy).
24. “Did It On Em” by Nicki Minaj – “If I had a dick I would pull it out and piss on em”. Whoa. Bangladesh should produce everything Young Money makes.
23. “James” by Skipp Coon and Mr. Nick – Welcome to Skipp Coon and Mr. Nick. The beat bubbles behind a righteously raging quote from Sidney Lumet’s Network, perfectly setting the stage for Skipp to step through with his sharp tongue and spit determined, passionate, literate political rap. There’s so much to love and unpack in every Skipp verse—film and literary references, unique images, witty wordplay that doesn’t lean on de rigeur simile constructions. There’s real craft and care on display here on part of both emcee and producer, as Nick’s light, ethereal keys and percussion provide a calm-before-the-storm soundbed that allows Skipp to preach without the fire next time that comes on tracks after “James.”
22. “Aggressive Content” by Nickelus F – I don’t really see Nickelus F getting much of the love I think he deserves of late; perhaps I was sleeping, but it seems like the old-school hardcore face punch that was “Aggressive Content” went largely unnoticed by the internet community (to say nothing of the real world, which of course doesn’t exist). “Aggressive Content” is a simple concept executed with vigor and total conviction. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it puts spikes on it and runs it over your face…
21. “New Era” by Danny Brown – …and speaking of running over your face, what a FLOW Danny Brown has. It’s almost impossible to categorize: rugged, buoyant, psychotic, dexterous, elastic—I feel like I’m describing a thugged out gymnast high jumping through the clouds. I don’t even know what that means. “New Era” is a god damn modern day epic, an unflinchingly urgent “rep your city” anthem that seeks to embody (I imagine) Danny Brown’s Detroit rather than merely describe it. It works.
20. “Walk Alone” by The Roots ft. Truck North, P.O.R.N., and Dice Raw – Years go by, Black Thought gets better and better. He sealed “Walk Alone” a spot on the list with this little couplet: “walk alone, talk alone/get my Charlie Parker on.” Just stuck with me, along with that haunting, balanced beat that chugs along in a lonely key aside a battery of paranoid rappers. “Walk Alone” is top 20, but Black Thought’s verse is probably top 10 of the year.
19. “For My Dawgs” by Waka Flocka/”For My Dawgs (Chopped not slopped)” by Waka Flocka and DJ Lil Steve – I’m not sure which version I liked more, so they’re going on as one version. A creepy banger from the man who made some of the biggest, most important…wait, let me repeat that: MOST IMPORTANT records of the year. He’s not a technically skilled rapper in the traditional sense, but his energy and passion are palpable and his knowledge of what works is even more evident. Waka Flocka doesn’t make ballads or message tracks. He doesn’t muse about fame or society or much of anything at all. He makes proto-gangsta music that proves there’s more of a link between M.O.P., Ice Cube and Atlanta than just a couple slammin Killer Mike records. Waka is the other side of the Freddie Gibbs/Pill coin, a rapper who replaces their charm and dexterity with brute force. It works and it will keep working. Just ask M.O.P. about “Ante Up.”
18. “Shutterbugg” by Big Boi ft. Cutty – The first appearance from the man of the year. Kanye’s little opus came in late and stole the show, but Big Boi owned my summer and made my favorite album of the year by a slim margin. “Shutterbugg” was an infectious slice of eighties-bathed funk rap that brought the best of Zapp to 2010 without evening sampling the ubiquitous g-funk progenitor. Scott Storch is as much the star here as Big Boi, his heavy, layered beat proving to be one of the stranger star turns of the year. And Big Boi, as this list will attest, spent the majority of Sir Lucious Leftfoot in top form—”Shutterbugg” is no exception, with Big Boi sounding sharp and excited.
17. “Black and Brown” by Black Milk ft. Danny Brown – Sometimes it’s all about execution. “Black and Brown” is symphonic boom bap, with two excellent rappers providing no frills, no chorus rap that impresses with force and technique. Black Milk has improved to the point that he’s certainly in the conversation of best rapping producers; we’ve already heard from Mr. Brown, who doesn’t come quite as unhinged here as he does on his own album, The Hybrid, but provides an exciting introduction to anyone who hadn’t heard of him previously. Flawless execution on all fronts.
16. “Panic” by Roc Marciano – I grew up listening to Wu Tang and Boot Camp. Music like this just feels right in the soul. It hits, it’s nasty. It helps that Roc, doing double duty on production and rhymes, delivers the hardest drums this year and one of the wittiest, most swagged out verses to never mention “swag” one time. This is feeling music, a sound memory of a time of which I wasn’t even conscious. It’s an absolute, old school headnodder that’ll fuck your neck and back up. Play only at extremely high volumes in residential neighborhoods.
15. “Breakfast” by Curren$y – Man, this is just some cool shit. That’s a sentence that could probably be used to describe most of Curren$y’s recent catalogue. Mos Def’s production, with its summer breeze smooth horns, gives Curren$y amply mellow room to cleverly espouse the pleasures of playing a smoked out full season of NBA Live’s franchise mode. And really, isn’t that most rap listener’s vision of heaven? This one isn’t particularly complex, just vibed out July-evening music that works and slides away into the wind as quickly as it comes, staying just long enough to entertain.
14. “I’m Not Your Lemonade” by Major Lazer and La Roux – The first of two songs on the list in the Noisettes Division of Songs I Couldn’t Get Out of My Head. It’s not really a new song per se, mashing La Roux’s “I’m Not Your Toy” (2008) with Gucci’s “Lemonade” (2009). But the mix, unexpected and infectious, played me out of the summer and eased me into the fluster of the fall with memories of Bangladesh’s undeniable production filtered through new sensibilities. Fun music for a summer evening that wouldn’t get out of my head until the year wound to a close.
13. “Trunk Muzik” by Yelawolf – Now THIS is what I wanted from Yelawolf. “Trunk Muzik” is an exclamation of technical magnificence as arresting as anything in rap this year. If you are unimpressed by Yelawolf’s flow on this you’ve either listened to too much Tech N9ne or you’ve stopped appreciating rappers dedicated to the craft of rapping. It doesn’t tell a story and, if you’re not versed at least in passing with fast rap, certain portions will be entirely unintelligible. Sort of impossible to deny Yelawolf when he machine gun fires “Alabama’s unanimous animal Yelawolf on the 808” at your eardrums. “Trunk Muzik” is what an opening track from an emergent artist should be, a blazing salvo that introduces the creator’s aesthetic in a succinct, dazzling fashion. And I haven’t even gotten to the beat yet. The beat is fantastic. How about that?
12. “Earl” by Earl Sweatshirt – Perhaps the most vital song of the year. Along with Big Boi and #8 on the list, “Earl” reminded me how incomparably exciting rap can be. Now to highjack this spot with a brief thought on 2010. I think this was not only one of the best years for music in recent memory (since 2004 let’s say? 2003 maybe? 2002, even?), but also a testament to how exhilarating and wide-ranging Hip-Hop can still be. “Earl” was a shot of Nyquil laced liquid-coke straight to the heart, the kind of rap that makes parents yell at their kids and throw out CDs—or the kind that would if it even came on a CD. Perhaps we can dub this the cornerstone of “hard drive eraser rap”—the type that makes parents dig through computers and delete everything in hopes that their kids won’t mix up that sickly Odd Future medicine and start bleeding from their nipples. I’d say more about “Earl,” but honestly if you haven’t heard it yet you should’ve stopped reading a while ago and gone and listened. Words cheapen the experience.
11. “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu – The beautiful sound of a chilly spring. Smooth, full, and spellbinding, all the things soul should be and hasn’t been in too long. It’s sultry, Erykah’s hips transfixed into a music too potent. New Ameruykah Part II brimmed with sex in ways inviting, amusing, and frightening, but “Window Seat” spoke vulnerability to beautiful curves and rode the rollercoaster of Erykah’s voice into an approximation of love and loneliness, want and need as vital and soulful as any in her catalogue. Light a candle to this one.
10. “General Patton” by Big Boi – This was a year of big records, cinemascoped epics that filled speakers and overwhelmed listeners. We had Kanye and Diddy’s album length ego trips (trips into ego? trips over ego?), Lex Luger’s single sound anthem revolution, and Bangladesh’s solidification as the go to guy for weird, gigantic bangers. And somehow everything sounds smaller than “General Patton.” Play it at any volume—and if you play it at any volume at all, make sure you play it LOUD. “General Patton” is triumphant, furious, overwhelmingly, operatically brilliant march music that crushes anyone in Big Boi’s path. As such, the often underappreciated half of Outkast sounds as close to a fire breathing dragon as he ever has, eviscerating competition real and imagined in the steroided up spiritual successor to “Quit Hatin the South.”
9. “women revolution tennis shoes” by Skipp Coon & Mr. Nick – Somewhere between the sound of “James” and the David Banner/Luca Brazi assisted “4 27 1968 pt. 2” lies “women revolution tennis shoes.” A cry for revolution, personal and nationwide, worldwide perhaps, “women revolution tennis shoes” marries a production that threatens to come unhinged in its old-soul ballad beauty as Skipp fights over it with every breath, tears streaming from his eyes and exploding through each line. His craft as an emcee is on display as ever, but it is his passion and evident pain that give cries for revolution a personal feeling that the best incendiary rappers operating at their highest levels (for an example, listen to “Sex, Drugs, Rap and Roll” by Killer Mike) know is important to relaying the gravity of the situation, the necessity of the movement to all within listening range. “women revolution tennis shoes” is about so much that even its title does not seem to fully encapsulate it, but it is an important, startlingly raw portrait of black manhood in modern America, a worthy musical inheritor of James Baldwin (listen to it on loop and read The Fire Next Time if you really want to feel).
8. “Monster” by Kanye West ft. Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and Justin Vernon – In recapping everything, I find myself at somewhat of a loss for words to describe “Monster.” I spoke about it so much in the weeks after its release, listened to it more than any other song this year, rewound it more than any song I can remember. At this point, anyone who’s heard “Monster” has buzzed about and fawned over Nicki’s dazzling, mystifying star turn, a behemoth of a verse that manages to demolish two far more accomplished rappers in absolute style firestorm. The beat, a decidedly minimal moment on an album otherwise packing every corner with sound, provides a propulsive base for each rapper to deliver a fine performance, but Nicki is the only one who really embodies the title, devouring every inch of the production with her dungeon dragon demon priestess flow. “Monster” remains a stunner, if only because Nicki showed us what she could be when she grows up someday.
7. “French!” by Tyler, the Creator ft. Hodgy Beats – The one time I’ve posted about this song on YML, the title of the post was “one of the most serious records of all time.” It was an all-nighter-mid-term-paper-induced-delirium-blip on the radar, a reminder to myself that I needed to put “French!” on a playlist and walk around to it as the weather got colder. Odd Future has better gross out moments, more shocking music, and songs that are more sophisticated, but “French!” is fucking mean. Sometimes attitude is the only thing that matters.
6. “Pursuit of Happiness” by Lissie – Our second entry in the Noisettes Divison for inescapable pop curios that burrowed their way deep into my brain. I don’t particularly care for Kid CuDi’s version of this song. When Lissie sings it, she unlocks some sort of actual desperation and pain in CuDi’s navel-gazing ennui rebellion. Her soaring voice grafts new meaning to the words as she belts the chorus like an entire generation needed to feel those words. Lissie’s “Pursuit of Happiness” won’t go down as a legendary cover, but it certainly a modern reminder that the creator of the song need not necessarily be the owner of the song. It’s no “Respect,” but Lissie certainly takes CuDi’s mini-anthem hostage and turns it into a stage to display her voice as few of her other songs, in their low-key pop country formulations, allow.
5. “Lost in the World” by Kanye West ft. Justin Vernon – Ah release. From everything. The eyes, the expectations, personal desires, the whole damn thing. “Lost in the World” will be a personal anthem of love, loss, pain, and reconciliation for years to come—indeed, this is one of the most important things an artist can hope to achieve, that people will live to his music. Because Kanye lives and breathes through his music, because his personality and ego are so nakedly on display, in the lyrics as in the production, his music becomes an invitation to the listener to live along to it. So when that chorus chants “ayyy-ayy-ayyy,” I’m going to remember the beginning of winter and the difficulty of matters, for now, left unwritten. I’m not sure that’s what Kanye wanted, I’m not sure he wanted or needed anything beyond personal release, but his catharsis became my catharsis and “Lost in the World” invaded my world as a necessary soundtrack. It is a beautiful, triumphant piece of music to boot, presenting soaring melodies and booming drums to buoy most personal pain.
4. “Tangerine” by Big Boi ft. T.I. and Khujo Goodie – Perfectly constructed, compact. “Tangerine” represents Big Boi’s powers of song craft at their pinnacle, every bit of the darkly seductive heavy beat used expertly by each of the tracks inhabitants. It is as efficient and laser-cut as Kanye’s posse cuts are sprawling and utterly overflowing. Even Khujo’s blink-and-you-missed-it cameo is perfectly placed, a necessary third voice in a strip club stew that’s as hypnotic as the shaking asses it idolizes. “Tangerine” plays as the perfect microcosm of Sir Lucious Left Foot, an expression of a rapper (and, let’s not forget, producer—read your album credits kiddies and remember that Andre and Big Boi hung out around Organized Noize and are accomplished musicians in their own right off the mic) who has no time for wasted energy. Everything on the record (even the songs I didn’t like) is a carefully considered blast of who Big Boi is today. “Tangerine” reminds us that Big Boi really did do so much to balance Outkast, providing precisely built ballast to not only keep Andre in orbit but to give us something immediate grab on to as listeners. So “Tangerine” could have been a simple strip club anthem, but it reveals more on each listen, reveals what an exacting craftsman Big Boi is. And if you don’t think Big Boi is one of the top 5-15 rappers of all time, boy stopppppppp. (top rappers lists fluctuate as my days go by, some days he falls in the top 5 others down to 15, but he’s always one of the all time greats; acknowledge the rep).
3. “epaR” by Earl Sweatshirt ft. Vince Staples – I saved the words I didn’t use talking about “Earl” for “epaR.” “epaR” clicked for me in an airport in Denver in early September. I had listened to it a few times, but for some reason the third verse and final chorus (which twists the words of the chorus used throughout) finally sunk into my brain and blew everything inside my fragile skull to oblivion. Understand: if you want an example of immaculate rap writing, of rarely paralleled storytelling in rap, look at Earl’s verses on this song. Though “epaR,” unsurprisingly, treads similar thematic territory to the rest of Odd Future’s catalogue (it’s “Rape” backwards, subtle), Earl’s flair for the cinematic imbues it with a vibrancy that really bears out Eminem’s legacy more so than the wanton violence and rape talk. At his best, Eminem always provided vibrant details in mini-narrative form, providing small stories within otherwise non-narrative verses (see: “Remember Me”). Earl does this often but takes it to a logical extreme on “epaR,” using the first verse and chorus to paint small pictures that get exploded out to full-verse length and song-level on his final verse and rendition of the chorus (which changes to reflect the twists and turns of Earl’s tale). Vince Staples provides a perfectly fine accessory verse with some memorable lines (“don’t touch it or even fucking look/you’re Fantasia and the body bag’s a fucking book”) and the beat is excellently executed fare that fits perfectly in the OF aesthetic. It’s Earl’s work that pushes “epaR” to great heights.
2. “Hell of a Life” by Kanye West – People have called it empty, a weak link on an otherwise incredible album (though that unfortunate title has been bestowed in my circle on “So Apalled” more often than not). I don’t really care. I’ve listened to it more than any other song on MBDTF (with the exception of “Monster,” which sort of doesn’t count because of that whole GOOD Friday caveat), and the beat and mind on display have yet to stop pulling me in on each listen. If “Lost in the World” is the chest-beating, taiko/tribal drum pounding, wailing catharsis of Kanye’s whole experience, music that brings the inside out, “Hell of a Life” is one of his best commentaries on what it means to be famous in America in 2010. Calling it a parable doesn’t really capture the work of “Hell of a Life,” which distills Kanye’s experience into an understanding of life under the scope as only Kanye could wittily and naively (the paradox that led to the birth of everything Kanye-related this year) put it. Kanye brings the performance to entertain, but the beat brings the fury that demands repeat listens. The buzzing loop that forms its foundation is the meanest thing Kanye’s done since “Takeover,” but it’s tempered (or perhaps tempted to excess) by his newly progged out maximalist sentiments. Let’s not be mistaken: Kanye has almost always been a maximalist. Songs like “Heart of the City,” “Diamonds,” “Gone,” and “Stronger,” to name but a few, represent his flair for flashing lights rap at the highest level. “Hell of a Life” gives the whole formula a new edge and movement that vitally drives home Kanye the man and artist, the most inseparable king in two courts that we may have in art today. Maybe Werner Herzog is the only person who could argue for control of that title. Maybe Werner Herzog should have directed Runaway.
1. “Bastard” by Tyler, the Creator – Holy shit. “Bastard.” It wasn’t the song I listened to most this year because, frankly, I’m not sure I could handle prolonged exposure to it. I am, as usual, going to risk treading too deeply into hyperbole, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to speak about “Bastard.” Like a great thriller, the tension never lets up. “Bastard” takes you through an amazing drumless wasteland, digging through Tyler’s mind and setting the stage for one of the three best albums of the year. I want to emphasize: there is absolutely no percussion in this song, just a repetitive piano and a few dark synth touches along the way. The stage is perfect, the sonic embodiment of every tortured word Tyler utters. It never veers off its sinister course, presenting a vivid, shockingly lucid portrait of an angry, insanely talented young man attempting to show the world his capabilities or melt everyone in the process, perhaps both. Simultaneously, “Bastard” stands as a testament to, at very least, Tyler’s sophistication, an awareness of his dreams, his crew, his persona, his art, and his audience. It’s a savvy bloodbath, more restrained than “Earl” or “epaR” but possibly more frightening because it’s so damn intimate. It might not be the thesis of the Odd Future aesthetic (which, at the end of the day, probably is “Earl” by awareness designed default), but it certainly encapsulates what makes OF exciting: it’s too sharp, scary, and astute for its creator’s age, too accomplished and strange a piece of music to come from a 19 year old who was probably 18 when he made it (or maybe it only could have come from an irritated prodigy?). I don’t care if Odd Future hates their fans, loves their fans, or does anything of note going forward; “Bastard” alone is enough.
Multiple offenders account for 15 of the 30 songs on this list. Odd Future accounts for 4, Kanye and Big Boi provide 3 a piece, and Curren$y, Skipp Coon and Mr. Nick, and Yelawolf each notch 2. I don’t know what this says about my taste (laziness? consolidation?) or about music, but I seemed to fixate on specific artists this year more than any other in recent memory. And there was more that could have gone on the list from each. More from Skipp and Nick, more from Big Boi, more from Odd Future, and more that was discovered too late for me to tell how much I actually loved it (that list of too-late favorites is coming in a few days). Hope you enjoyed the read and disagreed heartily.