Favourite songs of 2010

Going out early, because I want to preempt everyone else’s lists. Also, I’ve been sitting on and mulling over the playlist for too long. Need to get it out and have done with it already.

If last year was a pop music supernova for me, this year was like the big bang. An entire new universe of squelchy bleeps, bass growls, ominous wobbles and echoing voices opened up. Yes, yet another university-educated, middle-class whiteboi falls prey to the lures of dubstep, and its much maligned scary-turned-poppy cousin grime. I owe my interest in this stuff to Simon Reynolds, who’s writings on the subject of the “hardcore continuum” have led me to re-acquire loved and lost garage classics, and beyond that to dip toes in the bewitching noise of jungle and rave. Shout out to Blackdown a.k.a. Martin Clark as well for providing much guidance for the uninitiated. His Pitchfork round-ups have given me a very useful history of the past five years, in which I’ve generally preferred to spend my days listening to bookish indie kids.

I haven’t given that stuff up, by the way. I remain an enthusiastic dabbler in many genres, scene-less, voyaging on the infinite sense-stream of the internet. I’ve been to about four gigs this year, no raves. I consume music in isolation, detached from the cultures that produced it. This vantage-point is both good and bad, I think. Heavy investment in a single scene gives you community and solidarity, and can up the music’s raptures. But it can also place limits on your vision. On the internet, there are no borders or us-and-them binaries. Only me, and what distracts me away from real life for the next five minutes. And I’ve always been more of a breadth over depth person anyways... Also, investment requires time and money, resources I wish to spend on a great number of other things besides music. It can only be a small compartment in my life, which is kept mostly tucked away, drawn out only when I should be reading Montesquieu...

This list has rules, as all lists must. One track per artist, because it’s long enough already. A release date in 2010, and yes there are difficulties with this one, what with internet leaks and the insular dubplate culture that reigns over the dubstepping crowd. The bigger problem is the fact that I’ve spent more time in 2010 listening to music released before 2010, so the list only partially reflects my tastes this year. The grime massive suffers particularly. Oh well. Sorry chaps! Try harder! The list is divided into genres, to make it sound nicer on spotify. Yes, there is a spotify link at the bottom of the post for your easy reference. Most of the tracks are there in some form. No real order, although we shall of course begin with my track of the year. Which is...

Creepy Crawler (Reckless Soldier / Jungle Mix) - Terror Danjah feat. Triple Threat, Funsta, Shabba D, D Double E, Skibadee, Bruza, Melo D, Hitman Hyper, Ragga Twins

After all that talk about rules, bit of a cheat really, since this first appeared on an Aftershock compilation in 2008. But that album was leaked by Danjah on twitter earlier this year, and this particular track was brushed up and included as a bonus on Danjah’s Undeniable, also released this year. Which is enough of an excuse for it to go in. Stop complaining.

Plus, I like the circularity it gives to my year in music, which started with me rhapsodizing about the Run The Road compilation. In that post I included a link to Danjah’s “Cock Back” as an example of this music’s terrifying and compulsive energy. Well, “Reckless Soldier” has all of that PLUS an awareness of history, calling back to grime’s roots in jungle and even, with the Ragga Twins at the end, rave. It’s the only fitting symbol for the journey I’ve been on this year. And it captures in miniature something huge which I missed in the 90s, when I was busy being a kid and listening to Will Smith. Around me, unawares, MCs were yabbering over jungle riddims on pirate radio stations. How I wish I had listened to them!

But forget all that. Just listen to THIS thing. The sci-fi bleeps and bass stomps, the inhuman percussion, the way it pulls back and skanks before piling on the hyper-kinetic madness. And the MCs damage the track with infectious relish and gusto: Bruza’s home-grown ‘avin it attitude, D Double’s incomprehensible gibberish, Hyper’s arm-wave to the massive, Shabba reppin his endz. This pack of nutters are not to be denied. You WILL get crunk! You have no choice in the matter. This is what it’s all about -- the need for release. And because the pressure of the environment is so high, and the gaps out of it are so small, the release is manic, demonic, almost desperate. It’s blinding euphoria emanating from the dark urban jungle. The future sound of London in all its awe, terror and glory.

Grime has settled into a comfort zone these past couple of years that isn’t particularly inspiring anymore. I guess that edge of desperation is gone. The only Danjah-unrelated highlight for me this year was hearing D Double E’s freestyle over S-X’s ‘Wooo” riddim on 1Xtra. Big up 1Xtra, btw. If 6Music had disappeared, it would have assumed the status of my default listening preference when I’m on kitchen duties. Very glad it exists. Back to D Double, “Bad 2 Tha Bone” is basically an update of Big-E-D’s “Frontline”, but with the Newham General even more insane and inventive than he was in 2004. Which is saying something.

On to the post-dubstep diaspora. Two producers have reigned supreme for me (and many others) this year. But we’re on tracks, aren’t we? Top spot goes to another jungle homage -- Ramadanman’s “Don’t Change For Me”. The renegade snares are nothing new, I suppose, but the chopped up hyph-y vocal adds a new degree of compression to the elation, the exaltation, the riotous jubilation. And that’s only the first two and a half minutes. A delirious arpeggiating synth comes in, and the vocal hook returns echoed and receding, a memory of ecstasy rather than ecstasy itself. If dubstep really is the hardcore continuum becoming aware of its history, it’s also about the new generation’s awareness of having missed out. We are living in the twilight years, and we yearn for that past that shone all too briefly.

David Kennedy is followed closely by James Blake and his “Postpone”, which takes two minutes of clumsy moans and shuffles to step out onto a plateau of resplendent morning sunshine, complete with horn fanfare. Blake’s output this year has been terribly involving, but there’s no time to go into it here. Other highs: Joy Orbison will never match last year’s enormous “Hyph Mgno”, and thankfully he isn’t trying on “So Derobe”, which settles for bubbling loved-up garage instead. Raffertie restrained the wobble this year, but with “7th Dimension” proved he didn’t need it. DVA infused last year’s “Natty” with lots of soulepower and released it as “Just Vybe”, turning murk to truly divine funkiness. Fellow hyperdubber Cooly G’s constant teasing on “Phat Si” ultimately won me over, although don’t ask me to dance to it. Pinch’s “Elements” almost reaches “Qawaali” levels of itching menace. Finally, a bit cheeky to include Ramadanman’s refix of Jamie Woon’s “Night Air”. IT’S MY HEART. What can I say?

In goth/witch-house news: Crystal Castles’ sophomore album ends up as my favourite longplayer of the year, due to a lack of anything better. Apparently, goths like to go raving in forests, although me being me, I’ve settled on the low-key “Violent Dreams” as the object of my dearest affections. Zola Jesus is a reassuring mother hen on “Night”, which is what everyone needs, particularly if there is no Bat For Lashes available. Salem’s “King Night” wraps apocalyptic choirs around dirty south hip-hop and welcomes you to his horror show. Balam Acab is a bit milder on “See Birds (Moon)”, which shimmers very prettily between bass lurches. “Ready For The World” by How To Dress Well sounds like a mumbling Burial, but you would mumble too if you were trapped in that dank reverberating fog, with just that little vocal snippet for comfort.

In chillwave news (a diffuse genre if ever there was one) the following mpfrees stood out from the crowd. Active Child’s “She Was A Vision” anchors its swirls with massive drums and piercing synths, to the point where the guy’s harp becomes pretty obsolete. White Hinterland’s “Icarus” pleasantly pulses and breezes, and the drums skip merrily along, providing just enough groove to sway to. Memoryhouse’s “Sleeping Patters” feels like those few minutes before the alarm clock rings. Twin Sister’s “Lady Daydream” coos just enough for you to forget the slightly clumsy lyrics. Elite Gymnastics relegated “Is This On Me?” to a b-side, because they are idiots. The dull vocalist is buried under a thousand layers of rich orchestral electronic psychedelia. Good save. “Heaven’s On Fire” by the Radio Dept. kicks off with some anti-capitalist spiel, before deciding to take you to the beach. Bunch of hippies. Chad Valley showed everyone that the Brits can do this hazy house stuff just as well as anyone with “Up and Down”. NDF’s “Since We Last Met” quivers fleetingly while an echoed vocal looks forward to the point when forgetfulness makes the pain go away. “Everything Is Working” by Games is just gusts of icy breath before the beat drops. And then all kinds of noises and voices drift in, retreat, come back, retreat, until a single voice is left crying ‘too young...’ A lot more interesting than the stuff Oneohtrix has done on his own. The spirit of Dilla lives on in “Maximalist” by Baths, only it’s gone surfing the Milky Way. And Lone’s “Raptured” throbs along like any other Lone track, until those arpeggios twist you right up, and then the snares get interesting, and then the arpeggios return. But you always have that sample to get you back on the straight and narrow.

In hip-hop news, little to report this year. Big Boi’s album could not BUT be disappointing, since the best cuts were leaked online before it came out. Of which, “General Patton” gets the nod here. Fat Sax rides out in front of a giant horde of orcs and proceeds to slew every rapper that ever lived. How did he manage that? He finally learned to spit SLOWLY, laying out the various reasons for his superiority so that even the biggest idiot can get the picture. That biggest idiot being, of course, me. Also, Eminem is back again, although his best work is not on his own album, but on what he did to B.o.B’s “Airplanes”. Verse of the year goes to Nicki Minaj on Kanye’s “Monster”, but the rest of the song was absolutely dire. Thankfully, “Go Hard” (originally from 2009, but on a mixtape comp released this year) is a good enough alternative. Finally, more dancehall than hip-hop, but the “Boy Shorts remix” by Mr. Vegas and Teairra Mari has to go in. Pisses on Rihanna’s “Rudeboy” from great height. Once again, hold tight 1Xtra for putting me on to this.

In dance/pop news, it was Robyn’s year alright. For more on “Cry When You Get Older”, go here. Meanwhile, Hot Chip’s “One Life Stand” is rather mediocre until Joe Goddard comes in with his falsetto, and then the chorus, and then the Knife-like stabbing synths. And that’s pretty much perfection right there. Hated faux-lesbian Katy Perry rights all wrongs with the inescapable and irresistible “California Gurls”. Designed as a riposte to Jay-Z’s “Empire” of last year. By my reckoning, if it doesn’t succeed, it also doesn’t fail. Plus, it has Snoop doing the sleazy patriarch thing. And Perry having the stones to shoot whipped cream from her tits in the video. What’s Jay gonna do now, huh?? Dubstep went pop this year, and while Katy B’s “Mission” was great, Diplo’s rework of Sunday Girl’s “Four Floors” beats it by doing the emotion thing better. Arthur Baker’s remix of “Life Magazine” by Cold Cave does little apart from make the song BIGGER, which is exactly what it needed. “Rockin That Thang” by Telephoned is about as joyous as electro gets. “Marchin In” by Lo-Fi-Fnk is happy bashing piano chords and singing stupid hooks, and you should be happy about that too. “Girls Night” by First Rate People has the cutest hook of the year, and then this DUMB DUDE muscles in and starts singing all over it! Ruined, I thought. But actually the interplay between the two elements is quite winning. The song is ABOUT dumb dudes being dumb, and that’s not so bad.

In indie/rock news. Japanese Voyeurs don’t want to let grunge go, but if they keep giving us vulnerable monsters like “Smother Me”, then that’s alright by me. Male Bonding lord over their American noise-garage-rock superiors by relentlessly rushing towards the lowest common denominator on “Year’s Not Long”. All the better for it. The latest album by Los Campesinos! had to have two tracks removed before it could be enjoyed properly (Gareth should NOT croon). Fave song keeps changing, but I’ll settle for “Straight In At 101” as probably the best introduction to what they are about. Johnny Foreigner’s new album, bar the singles, was a disappointment, but “With Who, Who And What I’ve Got” (bleepy version) restored my faith. Get it here. A free mp3 by Freelance Whales called “Generator Second Floor” had been floating around my library for a good while this year, and I’ve only just realized that it’s great. Will investigate further. Broken Social Scene return with a decent if not spectacular effort. The Emily Haines ballads are always the best things on each of their albums, and “Sentimental X’s” is a worthy addition to the group. It’s about the shift between ‘used’ and ‘used to call’. And is that “X” an ex or a kiss? It’s both. The title of the album says it all. Call it forgiveness. The Besnard Lakes finally release a good song in the form of “Albatross”. Took long enough. Glasser’s “Home” makes up for no Bat For Lashes this year even more than Zola Jesus does. And we end with Sharon Van Etten’s devastating “Love More”, which words can barely describe. Just listen.

Here’s how:

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