Critics' year-end Top 10 lists often feel as contrived as the "100 Celebrity Beauty Secrets / Weight Loss Tips / Your Obsession Here" come-ons that grace newsstands throughout the rest of the year.
I first began to realize this when I was invited to take part in the Village Voice's annual "Pazz & Jop" critics poll about a decade ago. At the time, the New York weekly had already begun casting its net well beyond its own staff and freelancers, reaching out to maybe a hundred or so critics across the country.
Scanning the results of such a broad cross-section of critics, I was surprised to see just how similar these lists all seemed to be, that out of a seemingly infinite supply of releases, a critical consensus of such impressive consistency could arise.
The Voice's critical pool has since grown considerably more expansive. ("Hello," began this year's solicitation, "you are one of the 1,500-odd critics we'd like to include ... "). At the same time, the gate-keeping that was once performed by major record labels and distributors has dramatically eroded. But my guess is that the same critical orthodoxy will remain unshaken.
For decades now, there's been an academic obsession with cultural canons — lists of great works that possess supposedly indisputable artistic merit — and that continues to spill over into the traditionally more egalitarian realm of popular criticism. So while the record industry's decentralization has led musicians and fans to resist being "pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered" (to borrow a rant from Patrick McGoohan), critics have shown a marked tendency to do just that.
Of course, this could all just be an elaborate rationalization for the fact that quite a few of the following songs — even though they fall somewhere within the realm of pop music — are unlikely to appear on many other Top 10 lists. Does that make them less worthy than the ones that will?
Not if we consider the fact that music is arguably the most ephemeral of art forms, one that connects on a deeply personal level. With each passing year, fewer music fans calibrate their listening habits according to sales charts and radio playlists. That's a problem for the record industry, and also for musicians determined to sustain a full-time career doing what they care about most.
Maybe a critical consensus could help fill that vacuum, but that seems doubtful, especially if it's a calculated one. At this point, it may be more valuable to share our enthusiasms, however unorthodox they may be, and point people to music they might not otherwise hear.
So the following are my 10 favorite tracks from what I consider to be one of the best years for music in recent memory. I'd encourage you to share your own favorites via online comments and in our letters section — and to view the online version of this story, where you'll find a video posted for each entry. Happy listening.
1. "Pursuit of Happiness" by Kid Cudi featuring MGMT & Ratatat (G.O.O.D./Dream On/Universal)
When Kid Cudi showed up at the studio to work on this track, it was MGMT that had to break the news that Michael Jackson had died that afternoon. Not the makings of a cheery session, one imagines, but definitely a productive one.
This track stands as one of the Midwestern rapper's most melodic, and is also easily the best thing MGMT has been involved with apart from its own "Kids." The song stays in your head as much as any track I can think of this year (including several I'd rather not have stuck in my head), and I'm surprised it hasn't become a huge hit. Although it may yet.
2. "Panic Switch" by Silversun Pickups (Dangerbird)
When this song came out in March, I was left feeling much the same way I'd felt about Silversun Pickups' first album: another great live band that can't pull it off on record. A few listens later, though, and it was like when The Wizard of Oz goes from black and white to color: Nikki Monninger's sinuous bassline, the driving repetition of the verses, all building up to that monster chorus ("When you see yourself in a crowded room / Do your fingers itch / Are you pistol-whipped ..."). Brian Aubert's songs sound just like Smashing Pumpkins' might if Billy Corgan were actually able to sing, and they can expect to be performing this one for a very long time to come.
3. "Jetstream" by Doves (Astralwerks/Caroline)
With Kingdom of Rust, Doves nearly snagged their third No. 1 album in the U.K. — Lady GaGa won out by just a handful of sales — and this opening track suggests why they've had such staying power. It's a push-pull of power and restraint, with orchestrated arrangements over an almost incongruously loping rhythm, like Aaron Copland brooding beneath a dejected English sky.
Jimi Goodwin's vocals, meanwhile, are as elegantly plaintive as any since "There Goes the Fear." Comparisons to Coldplay will no doubt continue, but if that's what it takes to broaden their audience in the states, so be it. In fact, I kind of envy anyone hearing Doves for the first time. There's not a better band out there right now.
4. "Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground" by Antony & the Johnsons (Secretly Canadian)
With quavering vocals and industrial-strength melancholy, Antony Hegarty's poetic oeuvre is even more Poe-faced than that of his mentor, Lou Reed. So while he's not much help when it comes to delivering the feel-good hit of the summer, this chamber pop masterpiece makes perfectly haunting accompaniment to life's more reflective moments. The brooding minor-key string arrangements complement a vocal that calls to mind Jeff Buckley when he was reaching for the furthest stars, and it makes me grateful that one of them is still around to do it.
5. "Alcoholics Unanimous" by Art Brut (Downtown)
It's easy to imagine Art Brut writing one of the year's funniest songs, but this is also one of the year's best, assuming you favor intoxicatingly punchy recordings about hangover support groups. (And, really, why wouldn't you?) Pixies main man Frank Black is at the production helm for 3 ½ minutes of punky guitar riffs supporting frontman Eddie Argos' boisterous morning-after rationalizations. Anthemic, really.
6. "Treat Me Like Your Mother" by the Dead Weather (WEA/Reprise)
When it comes to supergroups that feature Led Zeppelin riffs and moonlighting Queens of the Stone Age, I'll take Dead Weather over Them Crooked Vultures any day. "Treat Me Like Your Mother" may not be the most original track on the band's Horehound debut (that title goes to "I Cut Like a Buffalo"), but it's probably the most immediate and effective, with a merciless rock groove, Jack White and Alison Mosshart's combative crooning, and twisted lyrics ("You blink when you breathe / And you breathe when you lie / You blink when you lie") worthy of R.D. Laing's Knots.
7. "When I Grow Up" by Fever Ray (Mute)
Incurably accented and insidiously eccentric, Karin Dreijer Andersson's vocals are instantly affecting, whether performing with her brother Olof in the Knife, guesting with chillout duo Röyksopp, or masterminding her own solo project called Fever Ray. And while it's true that the Swede's disturbing imagery and frequently pitch-shifted singing make Björk seem stable and reassuring by comparison, her eerily beautiful electronic pop is incredibly alluring if you give it half a chance. "When I Grow Up" is pretty unforgettable, and even more so once you see the video.
8. "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" by Mayer Hawthorne (Stones Throw)
Producer Sam Phillips reportedly said he'd make a million dollars if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man. Ironically, Mayer Hawthorne sounds way blacker than Elvis and looks way whiter, especially with those horn-rimmed glasses.
Hip-hop scenester Peanut Butter Wolf put out Hawthorne's exceedingly swell debut album back in September, and "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" is a perfect showcase for the singer's sweet high-tenor vocals that suggest the church of Smokey Robinson is back in business. And yes, an earlier version of the song was released as a red, heart-shaped 7-inch toward the end of '08, but it took a while to, as the Grammy folks say, "achieve prominence."
9. "Sea Within a Sea" by the Horrors (XL)
Wow, 8½ droney, druggy, but not draggy minutes, and not one proper chorus (unless you count the weirdly modulated bit midway through). "Sea Within a Sea" sounds like the Horrors have spent a lot of time listening to the three Js — Julian Cope, John Foxx and Joy Division — but they could do worse (and, in fact, have). The raved-out arpeggiation builds slowly and subtly and, by the end, this is a thing of undeniable beauty.
10. "Fantasy Man" by the Swell Season (Anti)
Not many artists can capture the austere melancholy of Nick Drake and Antonio Carlos Jobim without lapsing into the solipsism that fuels a thousand bearded and boring indie-folk poseurs. Between the two, the Swell Season's Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have managed one beard, but resemblances end there.
"Fantasy Man" is one of the more unassuming tracks on an album that's not all that assuming in the first place. Irglová's basically in charge on this one, with engaging vocals that suggest a less calculated Feist, and a quietly beautiful arrangement of acoustic guitar, piano and handclaps. The song is, to use entirely inappropriate terminology, a grower not a shower, so give it a chance.