Monday, December 27, 2010

The Top Ten Songs of 2010

I spend a lot of time thinking about which songs will appear on my end-of-year Top Ten.  Starting around November, I start making lists and comparing play totals.  I rely on a complex formula of play counts, emotional associations, the representation of different seasons and life experiences, and how sick I am in December of songs that I loved in, say, May.  The goal is to make a list I can return to in a couple of years, play the songs, and suddenly remember how all of this has felt.  Before we proceed, let me gently remind the reader that this list is objectively correct and not up for debate.  Now, on to the music!

10. Alicia Keys, "Unthinkable (I'm Ready)" -- This year I found myself turning to more mid- to slow-tempo music, and this was the first Alicia Keys song in a few years to really grab me.  As usual, the lyrics and instrumentation are lush and sophisticated -- the thread of the rhythm guitar, the crescendo of the bridge, the deliberate pauses between chords.  I love Drake's subtle background vocals; his interplay with Alicia's main vocals seems gentle and sweet.  I've heard the remix where he busts out a full-blown rap, and it's completely unnecessary.  One of the admins in my office was singing this song for a solid four months, and I felt a strong affinity with her.  This song is fantastic.  

9. Shakira feat. Lil Wayne, "Give It Up To Me" -- I've written about this before, but when I found out L was pregnant last summer, I realized I had to do several things by the spring: (1) get a new job; (2) get a new apartment; and (3) have a baby.  Miraculously, I was able to accomplish all of these things.  To me this song captures both a sense of potential and pride in the achievement: "You can have it all, anything you want you can make it yours, anything you want in the world, anything you want in the world (give it up to me); Nothing too big or small, anything you want you can make it yours, anything you want in the world, anything you want in the world (give it up to me)."  On that last phrase of the chorus, Shakira's voice splits in two, and one track rises robotically upward on this fantastic trajectory -- it is beguiling.  The track also features a solid opening rap by Lil Wayne, and some excellent production by Timbaland.  The last great thing about this song: my hip hop teacher was prominently featured in the music video.

8. Usher feat. Nicki Minaj, "Lil Freak" -- This song is one of the more nakedly misogynistic songs I have ever had the misfortune to love.  It's about Usher at the club, soliciting a girl to go find another girl to bring home for a little menage a trois back at the condo.  I find this song to be incredibly aggressive -- "if you're coming with me... you go get some girls and bring em to me..." -- and it's a good song to listen to when I'm mad.  Comically, or perhaps pathetically, this song is my version of gangsta rap or death metal.  The two redeeming features: the twisted Stevie Wonder sample on the chorus, which brings some chaotic, swooping chords on top of the roiling, driving bass line; and Nicki Minaj's rap break, staccato like a machine gun.  Sometimes I listen to it just for those 30 seconds -- that and the last instrumental section of the song, where the misogyny takes a back seat so you can just ride the beat for a while.

7. Maxwell, "Love You" -- I got the new Maxwell album a full year behind everybody else.  I don't know why I waited; it just happened.  This album was a huge part of the mid-tempo soul revival I was talking about above; the classic vibe, clean production, and lack of any autotune or guest rappers was so refreshing and timeless.  It was hard to pick just one song, but this one was always my favorite.   The beat is driving and exuberant, and the song marches happily forward.  "I can be anything you want me to be, I just want to love you."  This always made me think of my wife and daughter, not just from the lyrics but from the happy devotion of the singer.  The single best line, at 1:06: the gentle falsetto when he sings: "Listen to the way I feel when love can change you, love arranges you."  Other highlights from the album: the scorching "Bad Habits," the plaintive "Fistful of Tears," and the insanely beautiful "Playing Possum."  That song destroys me.

6. Trey Songz, "Can't Be Friends" -- Trey Songz was my favorite singer this year.  He has a great voice with a unique vibrato (occasionally goat-like, I must say) and a solid falsetto range.  In the winter he had  "Say Aah," and then he had a whole bunch of remixes on other people's songs.  My favorites: his fantastic duel with Mariah Carey on "Inseparable," his bout with Usher and Keri Hilson on "I Invented Sex," his redemption of Toni Braxton's "Yesterday."  Unlike the rest of his songs, which portray Trey Songz as basically a horny puppy (or a horny baby goat, perhaps), "Can't Be Friends" is a lot more grown. The spare production -- the pulsing strings, a few piano chords -- belie the honesty and vulnerability of the song.  "I wish I never fell so deep in love with you and now there ain't no way we can be friends."  The best line: his ad lib at 3:06, "I wish we never loved it," as his falsetto bounces all over the scale.

5. Usher feat., "OMG" -- This is the kind of glossy android pop song that pretty much sums up where we are as a culture right now.  This song cannibalizes a few oldies, wraps them up in metallic synthesizers, adds a few crowd-pleasing chants and oh's, and then waits for you to devour it.  At this late date in the year, I'm pretty sick of this song, but it was a great for running or dancing.  We did many a warm-up in hip hop to this. is a solid producer, and he and Usher had a previous collaboration, "What's Your Name," that should have been on one of my previous Top Ten lists (2007?  2008?) but for some reason wasn't.

4. The-Dream feat. T.I., "Make Up Bag" -- Dream came up with his third album in as many years, and he solidified his place as my favorite artist of this era.  This song has a mysterious opening, as the bass line, piano notes, and synthesizer chords all intermingle, and then the lyrics turn out to be fantastically cynical about love: the guy is cheating on the girl; the girl catches him; the girl says, "if you don't want to break up, then you know what to do to make up"; to which the guy responds, "If you ever make your girlfriend mad, don't let your good girl go bad, drop five stacks on the make up bag, drop drop five stacks on the make up bag."  The key there -- that "drop drop" repeat. The song rolls forward and grows, broadening out as you wait for that chorus to kick in again.  T.I.'s rap is quick, honey-coated, and irresistible.  This is one of Dream's richer and more mysterious songs.

3. Toni Braxton, "Make My Heart"
-- Toni came out with a new album this year, and let me tell you, it was not that great.  I still think she has the best voice in female R&B, but she has moved away from the dark, sophisticated songs that really grabbed me.  Her album had a couple of stand-outs, namely "Caught," which was as good as smooth, slow-burning Toni gets.  This song, "Make My Heart," was an awesome club track: call-and-response horns, urgent beats, great bass lines, and a catchy chorus complete with "da da dum dum dum, da da dum dum dum."  I could not get enough of this song over the summer: running along the Hudson, jamming in the apartment.  There are some awesome remixes out there too.

2. Drake, "Find Your Love" -- I heard this song in hip hop, and then I heard it ratified on the streets, jamming out of car windows all summer.  "I better find your lovin, I better find your heart, I bet if I give all my love then nothin's gonna tear us apart." The strong beat kicking off the track and leading to the first verse, the way the song opens up on the chorus, like flowers growing towards the sun.  Drake's straightforward singing, the "hey hey heys" punctuating the verses.  The beat kicking in on the second verse.  Dang, just hearing it now makes me think of July.  I love the slow groove here, the lazy echo of Drake's vocal track, the piano chords grounding the song.  I just want to dance all cool with this one.  (And of course, I remixed the song for Alice as I tried to put her arms through her jacket sleeves  -- "I better find your fingers, I better find your hand...")  Over the summer I was sure this would be my number one song of the year.  Until...   

1. The-Dream, "Turnt Out" -- The first time I heard this song I was writing at the computer, late at night, and I had to listen to this song six times on repeat.  It's your basic "let's have sex right now" kind of song, but it stood out based on the beguiling introduction to the song, the guitar lick on the chorus, and Dream's clever use of falsetto.  The bridge of the song really sealed the deal for me -- he's been singing in falsetto this whole time, chorusing "I'ma do ya til you (oh oh oh) turnt out," but the bridge is in his normal range, adding a new heft and urgency and playfulness as he jumps from his lower range to his falsetto.  After the bridge the chorus kicks up the intensity, with the synth responding to the lines of the chorus with different rhythms, with Dream doing some impressive vocal runs, with the instrumentation melting together, turning out.  This is one of those slow songs you want to dance to; the relaxed beat and pace create plenty of time and space for movement, for expression.  This song is confident and hot and solid, and I still can't get enough of it. 

So that's the ten.  Thank you for reading all of this, if you slogged all the way through.  I always feel that I lack the words to describe what the music does and how it moves me.  This year I didn't feel like I listened to as much stuff as usual, but the compulsion and connection were still there.  I don't get dance hour as often as I used to -- now it's more internal, thinking how I would move, thinking how I wish I could sing -- but dang if I don't still want it.  But like they say: Too much is never enough.

Music makes me so damn happy.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


It's a blizzard night in New York as I write this.  The streets are quiet, muffled by snow and not yet lined with the tracks of cabs and plows.  Street signs blink their litanies to empty sidewalks.  From here, snowflakes are swirling and diving in all directions above the ground.  Our windows are speckled with snow and ice but the pink sky looms beyond, a haze of snowy light lacquered onto the darkness.  The snow dampens everything.

We had a very nice Christmas this year, the three of us.  On Christmas Eve L made a beef brisket, beets, roasted potatoes, green and yellow beans, and salad.  Our appetizer was parsnip and leek soup.  Dessert was double chocolate-chip muffins, with some vanilla ice cream.  Our friends came over, along with their daughter and one set of their parents.  We had a great meal, a long, warm night, listening to the same set of Christmas carols several times over.  And the most exciting element of Christmas Eve -- Alice started crawling!  Finally the pieces clinked in her head -- she could move from lying down to sitting to scooching to pulling herself up to crawling, like an extremely methodical elementary-level break dancer.  She started trundling all over the place, from the family room to the kitchen, pausing to slap on boxes or pull down Christmas gifts or check out the wheels of the stroller.

On Christmas day Alice wasn't that into the presents, although she enjoyed tearing apart tissue paper.  We went to church, where of course they asked us to bring up the gifts to the altar, which gave me something to worry about for the first 2/3rds of the mass.  But it was wonderful, with an amazing choir that really knocked the carols out of the park.  This Christmas I thought a lot about the Christmas story as the story of a child's birth and as an experience of new parenthood, which tapped into some deep and visceral emotions at unexpected times.  I suppose every parent thinks their child's birth is worthy of the choirs of angels and the shepherds and the magi.  Or at least a room at the inn; how could a parent abide with the indignity of their infant among the livestock and the hay?  Somehow it was all enough to get me choked up a little during "Silent Night," which had never happened before.   

After church we went to a delicious brunch at our friends' -- amazing quiche, french toast bread pudding.  Our friends got us amazing gifts.  Because my friend John always has these amazingly cool sneakers that I never have the guts or panache to purchase myself, he bought me a pair -- I was overwhelmed.  It was the perfect gift, since I would never dare to buy them, but would always covet them and rue my own shoe conservatism.  (I am not a good gift-giver; I'm not good at projecting what others would want.  I'm too much a creature of habit to make that imaginative leap.  This is a handicap I try to overcome every year.) 

The rest of Christmas day was quiet and relaxing at home.  We were all very exhausted.  Our exhaustion rolled pleasantly into today, and we were happy to bundle up at home amid the Christmas lights and the pleasantly churning snowstorm outside.  We ventured out late in the day, packing up Alice in her new snowsuit from Great Grammy and Great Grampy, and went up Claremont to 116th, then through the bright lights at Columbia, then down to the subway at 110th.  We passed several restaurants that looked warm and inviting, a perfect place for a drink.  But this is not the kind of winter; maybe if the baby wasn't an issue, or if money wasn't an issue -- but two strikes was enough today.  A year ago we could have gone in for a nice beer or a warm drink and an appetizer -- would have sat in the warmth and let our noses run as we took a moment to watch the snow fall on Broadway, resting and enjoying a few moments of conviviality before venturing back into the predictable discomfort of a storm.  But this is a different kind of winter.

I am excited to see the city that will greet us in the morning!  What a blessing to have our family tucked in at home as the snow globe whirls on around us.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Normally I am a cool and suave dude, but not today.  I should have known today would be weird when I found myself this morning scraping the bottom of the business-casual barrel.  No good shirts left.  No reasonable pants.  So instead I was rocking a pair of cords and one of those flowy, non-fitted dress shirts with several yards of extraneous fabric billowing gloriously around one's midsection.  Wisely, I stuffed this fabric under a sweater, which made me look like I was smuggling a wedding cake.  This is how I chose to approach the world.  Consequently, several unfortunate things happened:

First, as I was leaving the men's room at work this morning, I walked directly into another colleague who was on his way in.  This was fantastically awkward.  There was torso-to-torso contact.  Why did I not see him?  Later in the day I considered apologizing, but I thought this might actually make it worse.

Second, later on I was speaking to a colleague of the female persuasion, and I somehow mentioned that I had game, and she then said, "you have a wife and a baby daughter, you don't have game."  Trying to salvage the conversation without seeming unduly lecherous, I cried out, "But I used to!", which made me feel like no less of a creep.

Third, in the afternoon I was eating a brownie as part of the office's Holiday Cookie Exchange (somehow we never had one at the law firm, perhaps because the lawyers were too busy at night resenting their loved ones to bake) when a colleague came up and poked me in the stomach, Pillsbury-dough-boy style.  And of course he got me right at the point in my midsection where my sweater masked about eight layers of billowy dress shirt fabric, and his finger just sort of continued on, unimpeded.  It reminded me of the burrito I ate yesterday, which had guacamole in it, and when I bit into the burrito in the guacamole part the whole thing just collapsed because there was nothing solid there.  That was kind of like my midsection today. 

In an effort to redeem the day, the brownie, and my dough-boy-esque physique, I went to the gym tonight for a little lifting and a good spin class.  I was wearing a shirt with no sleeves, but thankfully no one made fun of me.  The class was great and it was a good workout.  And best of all, when I came home I saw that L had picked up the drycleaning, which means that tomorrow I will be much better-equipped for the day that is to come.

Best books of 2010

In chronological order, here are the books I loved most in 2010:
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson
  • Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
  • The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin
  • The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

This list does not seem very long, for an entire year's worth of reading.  I read a lot of books that weren't that great this year (here's looking at you, Wolf Hall and Freedom (see more thoughts on the latter book here)).  I switched from buying books to going to the library.  I read some more short stories (including Mavis Gallant, Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore and others) but Wells Tower was the only one I loved.  Game Change was practically perfect, in its gossipy political way, but I didn't read as much history as usual.

Fiction-wise, Moby-Dick frustrated me as I read it but left me reeling (more thoughts here).  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a book that captivated me since I was a little kid, turned out to be almost prophetic (more thoughts here), and bookended nicely by The Privileges.  But my favorite novel of the year would have to be Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs.  Although the plot of this slender book is modest and direct, I thought she wrote very ambitiously about the post-9/11 era through the lens of a small cast of characters.  I actually think she accomplished what Jonathan Franzen tried to do in a much more bloated way.  Moore's writing was impeccable, and besides from one far-fetched episode with the protagonist's mysterious boyfriend, I thought this book was flawless.

(While on the subject of Lorrie Moore, let me note that she wrote the most fantastic simile I've read in a long time, from her story "Charades" in Birds of America: "She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor's office, but it is a limited thing--like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands, and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable.")

The best non-fiction I read -- just beating out the salacious popcorn of Game Change and the ongoing train of biographical perfection that is The Years of Lyndon Johnson -- was Cheever: A Life.  After discovering Cheever's fiction a couple years back, I was very interested to read about his sad and troubled life.  I had a lot of sympathy for him, for his demons, for the suffering he inflicted on himself and on others. His was a fascinating life, and Blake Bailey created an exemplary biography, as well as a great literary study of Cheever's works.

Right now I'm read Norman Mailer's The Naked and The Dead, a great book for these dark winter days.  Coming up in the queue: a new biography of Raymond Carver and -- finally -- with baited breath -- Master of the Senate.  I'm hoping those will get me through the winter, and then who knows what's next.  I'd like to read some older, more classic short stories (maybe Chekhov or something) and am thinking possibly about Anthony Trollope.  And hey, there's always Decision Points.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas tree

Last night I went out and bought a Christmas tree from one of the street-side vendors.  This is one of those New York Christmas traditions that redeems an otherwise cruel and unforgiving place.  Transforming small patches of sidewalk into a temporary pine forest; the strapping, friendly, Portland-esque people who staff these stands at all hours of the day and night; the merrily pathetic Charlie Brown trees and the flimsy plastic shelters the Portlanders stay in to stay warm -- all of it creates a very plausible, useful, and reasonable amount of genuine holiday cheer.  Just this morning on my way to work I inadvertently got caught walking between a father and his kids and their local Christmas tree saleswoman, who the kids had clearly met before.  "Wave hi to Molly!"  the father called out.  "Hi, Molly!  Have a good day!"  Although I felt like a tool for blocking the wee moppets' view of Molly, this encounter made me happy.

Although I was pleased with our tree, I immediately had concerns that it was a little on the shrimpy side.  Yes, it's kind of narrow, but the price was right, and we're not exactly living in Versailles anyway.  You always find the tree to match your season, and I think we found the right one. 

L and I decorated tonight accompanied by Toni Braxton's Christmas CD, "Snowflakes," which was released in 2001 and has become a holiday classic (the same way the N'Sync holiday CD is a classic for my parents, my sister, and me).  There's one song on the Toni album, "Snowflakes of Love," that always struck me as treacly and overly sentimental. "On this day, snowy day/Let me thank you for the joy you're giving me/I'm so happy/I have snowflakes of love smiling down on me."  Who could actually feel that way?  No one feels that way.

And yet, last night I was listening to the song, sharing a quiet moment with Alice as we danced slowly and contemplated the tree.  "Reminiscing, I get so happy/I just break down and cry."  No tears were shed, but at last I could understand that the song had been waiting for me for nine long years.

Friday, December 03, 2010


The other night I had a dream that I was working again at my old law firm on some kind of special project.   They had call me in because they needed my expertise (as profound as it is) and familiarity with the firm.  Even in my dream state I was doubting why I had accepted this job.  "I need the money, but not this badly."  At the firm, I saw all of the old people, as well as a few strangers who had joined the firm since my departure.  I was dressed casually and felt uncomfortable, yet I was sitting around a big conference table getting ready to dive back into a particular kind of work and working environment. 

When I woke up I thanked my lucky stars once again for my change in circumstance.  I think I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about that place -- mentally mapping the hallways, checking out the current roster of attorneys on the website, skimming through Google News.  As time has passed my impressions of that place, and my role there, have changed.  In some ways I invested too much there; I put too much value on others' opinions and gave them the same tools they later used to cut me.  But who could have foreseen that.

Of course, the enduring legacy of that experience has been a lasting doubt in my own professional ability, the deflation of my self-confidence.  On some days I'm angry about that.  But all of that is over now, and only in my dreams would I ever cross that threshold again.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Single father

For the last several days I have been playing the role of single father while L attends a conference. I have thought of her often, usually missing her civilizing touch and tender loving care, but I also thought of her as I watched two episodes of "The Walking Dead," the grisly yet compelling new show about zombies overrunning Atlanta, which happens to be the city where L's conference is taking place.

On a brighter note, I have enjoyed my time as a single dad. It's fairly easy. In order to ensure a happy, tranquil baby, I recommend stuffing her to the gills with food. At night before bed she enjoys a nice hearty meal of formula plus some pureed vegetables, then she goes down very easily. On the first night she woke up around midnight for another snack. Then she woke up at 4 am for reasons that were unclear to me. She didn't want to eat, or have her diaper changed, or be in her crib. So I gave her a few sips of water and just put her in bed with me, arranging a pillow fort so she wouldn't roll out. And then she seemed calm and willing to sleep, as long as she had a hand or foot pressed into my neck. But that's a small price to pay.

Last night, she gorged on formula and pureed bell peppers. While she had the bottle she would dramatically drape an arm on top of it, obscuring her face except for her big eyes staring at me, or she would reach up a hand to gingerly and carefully try to pick my nose. Afterwards the girl was knocked out for a solid twelve hours. I actually woke up in a panic around 5:30 because I hadn't heard from her in so long. But she was fine, and was up and babbling when I got out of the shower.

I must admit, the mornings have been more challenging. How is anyone expected to bathe, clothe, feed and change (as needed) two people? I haven't managed to eat breakfast at home any day this week, and Alice has not technically had a bath in a while, and the house is kind of a mess, and I am living off the largesse L left behind for us, and most of my meals have been pizza- or burrito-based, and the laundry is overflowing, and I don't think I boiled the plastic nipples of the bottle long enough before I used them for the first time.

Going into this week I had been afraid of perpetual screaming, sleepless nights, and an inconsolable child. The fact that none of that has really happened, and that we are all doing generally okay, has been immensely rewarding.