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. will.i.am, "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. Will.i.am 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.