Whenever I need a break from (1) thinking about our mysterious incoming baby, (2) worrying about work, or (3) moping over our upcoming move from the West Village to upstate New York, I think about which songs will make my annual top ten list of the year. Music is the currency of my life, in a lot of ways, and listening to these songs already provokes such a rush of emotion and memory. Without further ado, and keeping in mind that this list is objectively correct and not up for debate, here are my top ten songs of 2009:
11. Kanye West, "Heartless" & Kris Allen, "Heartless" -- I spent a lot of time this winter listening to Kanye West's bleak, spacey new album. In January I spent several long Saturdays in Newark for continuing legal education, and I have one particularly tart memory of a late January afternoon on a platform at Newark Penn Station, waiting for the train to take me back to Manhattan, watching the snow flurry down through the overhang and onto the cold tracks below. In its own way, it was perfect. Later in the spring and summer I listened to Kris Allen's cover of "Heartless" -- he added a warmth and a fullness that was deliberately absent from Kanye's pulsing, insistent synethesizers. And, unlike a lot of acoustic/white versions of R&B or hip hop songs, Kris did not try to be cute and ironic about it. He played it straight, and the result was greater depth and some beautiful vocals. I wrote about it a little bit here.
10. Adele, "Hometown Glory" -- This summer, when I was really trying to focus on my writing and dig something deep, "Hometown Glory" was the song that opened me up to the process. When James was in town this summer we talked about this song, and I told him how this song just seemed to split me open down the middle. He asked me why this song had such an effect on me, and I really struggled to answer. Maybe the melody, I thought, or the lyrics about home or nostalgia -- but it really isn't any of that. I still don't quite know, but the song retains its undeniable alchemy, its potency. This song goes deep. I talked about it before here.
9. Drake, "Best I Ever Had" -- Ohhh! Heeeey! It's a hip hop love song, y'all! This song is so exuberant, it just makes me feel great. It makes me think of L. It reminds me of Method Man and Mary singing "You're all I need to get by." Drake's rapping and singing, finely retouched with some autotuning, seems genuine and heartfelt yet full of swag. This song makes me dance dorky to it, every time.
8. Ron Browz, Jim Jones, and Juelz Santana, "Pop Champagne" -- This was the song of the night the first time I ventured up to Alvin Ailey for some hip hop, back in January. To me this song sounds vaguely sinister, between the sing-songy chorus and spare instrumentation. Once you embrace that aggression, though, and make it work for you, this song has everything. I wrote about it a little bit here.
7. Black Eyed Peas, "Ring-a-Ling" -- This was another Alvin song. I have really come to appreciate Will.i.am as a producer, and this song, as well as "Imma Be," from the new Black Eyed Peas album, are fantastic. At Alvin, we were doing some popping and locking to this song -- two styles of hip hop I am not good at, not at all -- but this song made it work. The guys are rapping and Fergie is riding into the track on a wave of synthesizers like some kind of electronic sex goddess. The syncopated bass line and the relentless melody, skittering all over the place, capture the sheer impulse and dizzying logic of the late night call. And at the end of the song, when there's about a minute left and he finally admits what the song is about -- a booty call -- there is a slight shift in the music and you get one of those sequences that I just want to live in, when everything is working together and you can think of a million ways to fill the space the song creates.
6. The-Dream, "Take U Home 2 My Mama" -- Dream had a new album, not as good as the latter-day classic he created the last time around, but this one had its moments. This song is pure exuberance, kind of stupid, completely good-natured, like a hip hop golden retriever. This song is another good one for the corny dancing. Yet there are also a few plaintive moments in the song, perfectly balanced by his own smart-ass echo on the verses and his wordless appreciation of his paramour's assets: "her t****** like wooooooo, her booty like oooooooo." You know exactly what he means.
5. Mariah Carey, "Inseparable" -- Mariah's new album turned out to be awesome in a completely unexpected way -- she included a few slow- to mid-tempo tracks that to me captured the essence of 90s R&B. Something about the production, the wordy verses packed into the melodies, a certain sense of melancholy and nostalgia perfectly expressed in a minor key. I have read criticism of her that she doesn't sing in full voice enough, but this song, like several others in the suite, is remarkably restrained until the end, when the wall comes down and she is finally singing and emoting the hell out of it all. As she lets it all go her upper octaves come in and provide some texture, and she is off to the races. One thing I appreciate about Mariah is that I feel like her runs and ad libs are always absolutely focused and necessary - there is never a spare or inarticulate note. This song is my favorite on the album: "no one is inseparable...except for us." My neighbors must love this song too, because I sing the hell out of it whenever I can get away with it.
4. Ryan Leslie, "Out of the Blue" -- This is one of the best slow jams I've heard in a long while. I really love this guy's production, and his vocal range is right where mine is, so I have worn this song out. There is also a moment after the bridge when he is singing, at approximately 2:13-2:28, "I almost died when you left me, baby" -- and this line honestly gives me chills, even now, even when I'm running or standing on a crowded subway. For some reason he says "baby" more like "booby," and what is in his voice at that moment is so honest and genuine. The emotion in this song really strikes a chord with me.
3. Mariah Carey, "Obsessed" -- Ok, this is a dumb song. I understand that. But it was produced by The-Dream (as was "Inseparable," no. 5 above), and I just like it. I like all the broken up "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh"'s. I like The-Dream yelling "Ay ay ay ay!" in the background. Like "Hair Braider" from last year's list, this song is not particularly ingenious or clever or otherwise meritorious, but sometimes it's enough to make you get your groove on while riding the subway, tapping your foot or snapping your fingers or even flexing your butt to the music and assuming no one can see you. And any song giving a shout-out to a dude's napoleon complex is kind of funny.
2. Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, "Blame It" -- I was really late on this song, but it propelled me through the first half of the year. T-Pain's verse is more lively than Jamie Foxx's, but the chopped up chorus is irresistible. This was another Alvin song, but they played it only once, as the class was leaving and we were all filing out, so I was getting my bop on and shuffling across the floor with my jacket and my bag over my shoulder, stopping a minute to groove with the teacher and her pals. It was the kind of song and moment that I really missed.
1. Beyonce, "Sweet Dreams" -- The video to this song actually does it justice -- it captures the groove, the sensibility, the sense of strangeness. I like the ambivalence of the lyrics, the poetry, the changes in mood. I have been interested in this song for months now, thinking about the disparate elements and how they come together, and I think it's a really fascinating piece. My favorite element is the roiling bass line, which envelopes the melody and folds itself around you. Sometimes I listen to the song just to follow that low groove, listening to the song dance on top of it. And then the bass finally relents as the song fades: "Either way I don't want to wake up from you..."
So those are the ten songs that sum up this past year. If you read all this way, kudos and thanks. Once again, it's all about the music that moves me to get my groove on or sing my heart out or take a pen to paper. In a certain way, music does more for me than anything I read or see -- finding music to love is like discovering a new vocabulary, even though I feel like the words I use to describe it are so limited. But it's undeniably there.
Music makes me so damn happy.